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Auditor calls Baltimore's 33% water bill rate hike reasonable; public hearing tomorrow

Reporter Luke Broadwater on a possible water bill rate increase for Baltimore residents. The city's finance and public work director are recommending the increase. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore's Board of Estimates will hear public testimony Wednesday about a proposed double-digit, multiyear water bill rate increase.

The hearing will take place at 9 a.m. at City Hall.

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Under the proposal, Baltimore residents would pay about 33 percent more for water and be charged two new fees under a three-year plan to help fix the city's crumbling infrastructure and error-plagued billing system.

Water rates would increase an average of 9.9 percent annually and sewer rates would increase 9 percent a year through fiscal year 2019. The plan also calls for new infrastructure and account management charges.

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The Department of Public Works said the yearly water bill for a typical family would likely increase about $170 by the third year of the plan.

City auditors, who report to Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, concluded that the proposed rate increases are reasonable to meet the water department's debt service payments, according to the agenda of the Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The city's spending panel must approve any expense greater than $25,000.

As part of the overhaul of the city's water-billing system, officials say they plan to switch from a quarterly billing cycle to monthly bills starting Oct. 11.

City officials say the rate increases are needed to finish the "replacement of all residential and commercial water meters in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County." The new meters are being outfitted with wireless technology that is supposed to make meter-reading more accurate and improve the timeliness of billing.

The rate increases also would help the city comply with federal and state mandates "protecting public health and environment, as well as investing in our aging underground water and sewer systems," officials said.

Baltimore has embarked on a six-year, $1.3 billion capital improvement plan for water projects that includes replacing mains, covering open reservoirs and renovating pumping stations. The city is also in the midst of a six-year, $701 million improvement plan for wastewater projects that includes major upgrades at the city-owned Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County.

Officials plan to increase water rates for bulk purchases made by Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties by similar amounts.

The city provides water to about 400,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Baltimore County officials announced in March that water and sewer rates there would increase 21 percent by the start of fiscal year 2018. The county's rate is set independently of the city's.

In Baltimore, water and wastewater services are, by law, self-sustaining operations that operate outside the traditional city budget process.

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