The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, President of the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leads a protest over the city's plans to shut off water to 25,000 customers. (Lloyd Fox/Baltlimore Sun)
A couple of dozen protesters rallied outside City Hall on Monday to call on officials to reverse a decision to begin turning off service for water customers who are behind on their bills.
Sharon Black, a Waverly woman who helped organize the protest, called on the city to delay any water shut-offs. The protesters want the City Council to investigate the reasons why the delinquent water customers are late in paying.
"We're in a state of shock and outrage," said Black, an activist with the People's Power Assembly. "People aren't paying their water bills, because they can't afford to."
The Department of Public Works announced last week that the agency will begin to shut off water to customers who owe at least $250 on bills that date back at least half a year. Officials said the service likely will be cut off within 10 days after a customer receives a notice. An estimated turnoff date will be included in the mailing.
The city will begin cutting off service Wednesday. Notices are being sent to about 25,000 delinquent customers.
The customers — who owe a combined $40 million in long-overdue bills — include both residential and commercial users. About half of the city's 400,000 water customers are in Baltimore County.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the action is a necessary step that could help the city avoid future water rate increases. He said the city offers help to seniors and others who can't afford to pay for water.
"People who are having a hard time, we have programs for them," Young said.
As for the others, he said: "We have to pay our bills. They have to pay theirs as well."
But Black urged the city to slow down. She also called on the public works department to release a breakdown of the businesses with unpaid water bills.
"It's inhumane and harmful," she said. "They need to find out why people have not paid."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she wants to find a way to ensure city officials are available to help residents fill out applications for assistance and work out payments plans to avoid losing water service.
"You have to feed your kids and pay rent," she said. "A lot of households pick and choose what they can pay for."
Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said his organization is "very concerned" that tenants will go without water because landlords don't pay their bills. He called the city's threat to shut off water for unpaid bills "inequitable and unconscionable."
"It's very common for a tenant to have a dispute with their landlord over a water bill," Hill said. "The water bill is always in the landlord's name, and tenants cannot challenge disputed water bills."
Hill said the city should first go after businesses with unpaid bills, not residents.
"If most of the debt is owned by commercial properties, why would they get the white glove treatment?" he asked. "Did Baltimore City not learn anything from Detroit?"
Last year, Detroit officials were heavily criticized after shutting off water for thousands of residents. Tiffani Ashley Bell, who founded a nonprofit there that she said allows people to donate to help impoverished Detroiters, said she is launching a similar project in Baltimore.