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Blame Md.'s congressional delegation for Baltimore's water woes

Op-ed: Blame Md.'s congressional delegation for Baltimore's water woes.

Imagine a city of 650,000 souls held hostage by grasping tyrants. Their unceasing demands for tribute drive hundreds of inhabitants from their family homes, fomenting bitterness and disorder. Quisling "tribunes of the people" watch from a distance. They tut-tut about the tragedy of it all but do nothing to stop it. Rome under the Barbarians? Central Asia under the Khans? No. Baltimore under its 2002 judicial consent decree on wastewater.

Think the "tyrant" metaphor is over the top? In May 2016, Baltimore's tax auction list was over 20,000 properties long. Hundreds of the tax liens are traceable to one cause: skyrocketing Baltimore water bills, a disaster caused in part by an alliance among the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice, Maryland's Department of the Environment (MDE), and the federal court that gaveled the 2002 wastewater decree into being.

In 2002, environmental bureaucrats and the court teamed up to force Baltimore residents to commit hundreds of millions of dollars they do not have to modernizing Baltimore's sewage and storm water systems. The city water department's 2015 annual report indicates that in just one year, capital outlays needed for this massive unfunded federal mandate exceeded $400 million, with the work barely half-done.

Stopping rivers of sewage in the streets is vital, and Baltimore's antiquated infrastructure must be replaced. But federal courts do not have authority to appropriate funds to pay for their own orders. Instead, Baltimore's poor, elderly and hourly wage-earners are footing the lion's share of the massive infrastructure repair bill from their nest eggs, pensions or paychecks.

Since 2002, Baltimore's stoic citizens have endured nothing less than an environmental state of siege by bureaucrats and judges that has destroyed families, small businesses and inner-city churches. Under the one-two punch of Martin O'Malley's "rain tax" (still collected in Baltimore), and higher water rates attributable to the federal wastewater decree, the city's most vulnerable residents live a shocking financial nightmare. Thousands of them have lost modest but hard-earned rowhouses or other dwellings because of it.

Few American cities are hurt more than Baltimore by environmental zeal and legislative sloth. What have Maryland's "tribunes of the people" in Congress done to help? Nothing. The latest installment of "nothing" came Sept. 15, when the U.S. Senate passed a water resources bill that protects Chesapeake Bay oysters but not Chesapeake Bay people crushed by Baltimore water rates. Maryland's U.S. Senator Ben Cardin took a victory lap anyway.

In fact, neither of Maryland's U.S. senators has broken a sweat to ease the burden of the 2002 judicial order on Baltimore residents. Their inaction is even more astonishing when we recall that one of them held the nation's purse strings in her hands for three years as Senate Appropriations Committee chair. Baltimore's water rate nightmare thus offers another example of Maryland's third-rate representation in Congress. The congressional record of failure to protect Maryland's most vulnerable people is inexcusable. But it is the Maryland norm.

What would aggressive, dutiful Maryland members of Congress do? They would use all of the powerful legislative tools at their disposal to put significant federal money into Baltimore's storm water/sewage infrastructure. They would pull the EPA claws from Baltimore's throat. They would find a way to have Baltimore declared a water infrastructure disaster area. They would open, and if necessary create, doors to relief for Baltimore renters and homeowners facing out-of-sight water bills.

In November, Marylanders in Congress too timid to insist on national investment in Baltimore's wastewater infrastructure should be booted unceremoniously from office. The Port of Baltimore serves commerce across half the nation. National investment in the city is perfectly defensible.

In May, Baltimore's tax lien auction list was 92 pages long. A month later, bureaucrats and the court extended the judicial wastewater decree for 15 years, once again with no funding mechanism. In August, with a judicial revolver at its head, Baltimore's Board of Estimates authorized another major increase in city water and sewer rates. In September, the U.S. Senate passed a water resources bill that relieved none of the pressure on Baltimore. Thereafter, the president signed a continuing appropriations measure with the same defect.

Angry environmental activists complain about the pace of Baltimore's wastewater repairs. Many blame the city. But Maryland's congressional delegation hasn't moved a muscle to help, and thousands of city residents have lost their homes at tax sale in the bargain. Activists are angry at the wrong people.

Maryland's congressional delegation has gotten away with murder. At best, they introduce "fire and forget" decoy water measures with no co-sponsors, no hearings and no prospects for passage. But like Senator Cardin, they congratulate themselves anyway. For the continuing nightmare visited upon Baltimore by the federal wastewater decree, Maryland legislators with a shred of integrity would hide their faces in shame instead.

Richard J. Douglas (Twitter: @richardjdouglas, an attorney in Prince George's County) was a water bill mediator in Baltimore City for nearly two years. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2012 and 2016.

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