On the day a slew of measures was supposed to take effect to make water more affordable in Baltimore and give renters new rights, advocates called on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to push forward with the changes, saying the coronavirus pandemic has made the matter even more urgent.
The city Department of Public Works warned the City Council weeks ago it would miss Monday’s deadline to implement the Water Accountability and Equity Act amid the coronavirus crisis.
But the “Right to Water” coalition said the agency should begin phasing in the new protections immediately. Molly Amster, coalition member and Jews United for Justice’s Baltimore director, said the outbreak does not justify the agency’s delay.
“The decision to completely kick the can down the road is unacceptable and unnecessary,” Amster said. “Baltimoreans need action from our mayor and DPW now. Immediate implementation where possible and diligent work on full implementation is needed.”
Jennifer Combs, a public works spokeswoman, said late Monday the coalition’s criticism is “surprising given that we have been working closely with them.”
Combs said public works officials have stayed in regular contact with members of the coalition and have communicated for months that the timeline to implement the new law is “completely unreasonable.”
The administration is pushing for the bill’s implementation to be pushed back until next summer.
The council passed the sweeping water affordability law in the fall, although the provisions in it have been years in the making. The changes to Baltimore’s long-dysfunctional water billing system are to provide discounted water rates, based on a customer’s income, and give residents more rights to dispute erroneous bills.
Beginning immediately, the coalition said city officials must give water customers more avenues to dispute their bills and stop charging late fees for those enrolled in payment plans and discount programs.
The law also requires the city to allow renters to dispute their bills and request financial assistance without their landlords’ involvement. Historically, the city has sent water bills to property owners, not tenants.
City Council President Brandon Scott said Monday he is committed to working with the public works department to figure out how implement the law. Scott, who won the Democratic primary in June, is poised to become mayor in December. In Baltimore, Democrats far outnumber Republicans, historically making the primary the de facto election.
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“We know that this is something we have to do, and we have to do it responsibly and it is going to take time to implement it that way,” Scott said. “But, as we continue to battle this public health pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we make sure people have the relief and access to a better water system as soon as humanly possible.”
Zafar Shah, a coalition member and an attorney at the Public Justice Center, said the situation can be especially acute for renters, chiefly low-income ones. The ability for a tenant to sign up for discounted water and to contest bills they think are wrong — without needing a landlord’s involvement — is even more important now given the added financial pressures the pandemic has caused many Baltimore families, he said.
Shah said the public works department’s signature water discount program, Baltimore H20, requires a tenant have a landlord’s cooperation to enroll and navigate billing trouble. Often, landlords are unwilling to help their tenants, or do not make it a priority to do so, he said.
“It is remarkable, but it is really no longer surprising that in the seven months since the council unanimously passed this law that the Department of Public Works has not fundamentally changed its treatment of tenant customers,” Shah said.
Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer for Food & Water Action, said the coalition has tried to work with the administration at every step of the legislative process, only to find the public works department missing the deadline and unable to meet many of its requirements.
She said Young and his administration have “dragged their feet and failed to make affordable, accountable water service a priority.”
“Baltimoreans need this crucial bill now,” Eckel said.