Activists Monday urged Baltimore City Council members to pass a bill they say would help alleviate residents’ struggles with the rising cost of residential water service.
The rally was held in front of City Hall on the same day a rate increase went into effect to encourage city leaders to pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act.
The bill would change the way customers interact with the Department of Public Works concerning billing issues by creating an Office of the Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals. The legislation would also create the Water-for-All Affordability Program to provide further financial assistance.
“The importance of this program is that it continues to cap water bills even with rate increases,” said Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer of the group Food and Water Watch.
The 10% rate increase taking effect Monday is the first in a three-year, 30% increase the city Board of Estimates approved in January.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young was the lead sponsor for the accountability bill when he was council president. His press secretary, James Bentley, said Monday the mayor is eager to see what reaches his desk and “remains committed to accountability and affordability.”
Also Monday, DPW began accepting applications for its own water bill relief programs, called H2O Assists and H2O Plus. People can pick up an application at DPW’s office or ask the department to mail them one. Customers who were enrolled by June 1 in the city’s senior citizen or hardship water billing assistance programs were automatically enrolled in the H2O Assists program.
DPW spokesperson Jeffrey Raymond declined to comment on the proposed legislation, instead advocating for H2O Assist and H2O Plus as programs that will “capture tens of thousands of customers.”
“The programs bring together the benefits in one place,” Raymond said.
H2O Assists and H2O Plus provide financial assistance in the form of discounts, grants and fee waivers based on certain eligibility standards set by DPW.
Eckel said the new rate increase will make water unaffordable for nearly 40% of Baltimoreans, based on the United Nations’ position that “water is a human right” and that water costs should not exceed 3% of household income.
“Rate hikes without a real, comprehensive affordability program in place is nothing short of injustice,” Eckel said.
Currently, the Water Accountability and Equity Act legislation is before the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee. The committee is planning work sessions with DPW on the legislation. The first will be July 25 at 10 a.m.
Due to a May 7 ransomware attack, the city remained unable Monday to send out water bills. Raymond advised customers to “set aside about what they spend monthly on water bills” so they can pay once the bills are issued. Also, he said people can bring or send in a check or money order to DPW to pay for water service since the attack.
When estimating how much to pay for service in July, Raymond said customers should increase by 10% percent what they normally pay for a month’s worth of water to account for the rate increase.