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Baltimore public works officials ask for more time to roll out city’s sweeping water equity law

Baltimore water officials told a City Council committee Thursday they expect to miss a summer deadline to offer an accountability program with discounted rates for low-income residents.
Baltimore water officials told a City Council committee Thursday they expect to miss a summer deadline to offer an accountability program with discounted rates for low-income residents. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore water officials told a City Council committee that they expect to miss a summer deadline to offer an accountability program with discounted rates for low-income residents.

Matthew W. Garbark, acting director of the city’s Department of Public Works, said the agency was set back due to the coronavirus, related new telecommuting requirements, and a problem over how to get water bills to renters instead of their landlords.

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In asking the council members Thursday to extend the agency’s July 13 deadline to implement the Water Accountability and Equity Act, Garbark also cited system limitations, budgetary constraints and a need to find creative and innovative solutions to meet the law’s requirements.

“I would like to work with anyone, the council and others, to see if there is any way, perhaps, we can extend the deadline,” Garbark said, “so we can get a better process, a better review and a more comprehensive program.”

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Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott asked for a breakdown by Monday on the parts of the law the agency is behind on, but made no commitment on an extension. He said he is going to use “every tool and the weight of the full Council” to keep the public works department on track.

The hearing came after the department missed an April 13 deadline to release its proposed rules and regulations for the sweeping law.

Under its provisions, the city’s long-dysfunctional water billing system would see big changes. Water rates will be discounted based on a customer’s income and residents will have an easier way to dispute erroneous bills.

“Clean and affordable water should have never been an issue for any Baltimoreans, period,” Scott said during the meeting of the council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which was held virtually.

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“We know that we must do better.”

Garbark said the agency is working to do all it can to stay on target for the summer rollout, while being open and transparent about the need for more time or resources as they arise.

Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer for Food and Water Action, noted that the law was years in the making. She urged the council and public works officials to make sure city residents do not have to wait longer for relief.

Because of the pandemic, the number of people who will need help paying their water bills is increasing, she said.

“Over one-third of Baltimoreans were already overburdened by unaffordable water bills before the crisis and we know that will only grow,” Eckel said. “This is urgently needed.”

Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said delays only widen racial disparities in Baltimore. More than half of the city’s households are renters, and of that group most are African American, he said.

“Let’s be forthright about who among us is going to be continued to be treated second-class when DPW doesn’t meet the July 13 deadline,” Shah said. “The 10 next weeks before the effective date are crucial.”

Shah acknowledged the significant challenge the city faces with a fundamental principle of the law, which is that renters will be given the same rights as homeowners to manage water bills. As it is now, the city sends bills to property owners, not tenants. That makes it tricky for renters to enroll in discount programs, dispute inaccurate bills or get aid for water bill debt.

The root of the challenge with billing renters and not landlords has to do with the way water meters collect data on usage. Some multiunit properties have a central meter that measures how much water is used in the building, not by each unit.

Another part of the problem is that property owners risk the city sending them to tax sale over water bill debt, so if a bill is in the tenant’s name, it could create enforcement questions. While residential properties are protected from being sent to tax sale over water bills alone, that debt can contribute to the city’s collection efforts when there are other delinquent charges.

Advocates also took issue with the public works department’s estimate for the cost of the law. Officials said it would cost about $44 million in revenue in the first year and about $31 million in each subsequent year.

Eckel noted that in Philadelphia, a similar program costs that much larger city about $16 million annually. Eckel said Baltimore is building an unrealistically high enrollment rate into its estimate, raising the projected costs.

The agency is expected to post its first set of draft regulations in the coming days, starting a process for public feedback into the law’s implementation.

Some reprieve already is available to city water customers, including an order by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young that prohibits the public works department from turning off water or imposing late fees during the pandemic. The city also is offering emergency discounts to customers who are unemployed.

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