Beatrice Johnson's home was sold at tax sale due to an unpaid water bill. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore will impose the second of three planned water rate increases on Saturday, driving up bills further and sparking fresh debate on how to ensure the poorest city residents still have access to affordable water.
Rates will increase about 9 percent. For a typical home, that means the monthly bill will rise by about $7 to $84. Stormwater and bay restoration fees are not increasing.
Once the third increase takes effect next summer, the price of water in the city will have doubled in the past eight years. Advocates say that for some seniors costs have grown even more quickly — doubling in just three years — because of changes in the way the water department calculates discounts.
Officials say the increases are necessary to pay for repairs to Baltimore's century-old water infrastructure and finance more than $2 billion in federally required repairs to the city's sewage system. But advocates and some members of the City Council say the way low-income residents are charged for water needs to be overhauled.
In the city, Councilman Bill Henry said he and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young are drafting legislation that would cap city water bills as a percentage of people's income. He acknowledged the need to bring in more money to fix old pipes, but said people who can't pay their water bill each month should not be left behind.
"We need to figure out how we are going to take care of the people living amongst us who otherwise can't afford the daily obligations of life," Henry said.
The stakes are high. When people get too far behind on their bills, the city sells the right to collect the debt to investors at the annual tax sale. If the person still can't pay, the investor can foreclose.
The Department of Public Works is taking steps to help poor residents as the rate increase goes into effect, raising the income threshold for senior discounts and expanding a grant program for people who get behind on bills. Officials also urged customers to use an online billing tool to keep track of how much water they're using.
Public Works Director Rudolph S. Chow said the department "is committed to making sure that our low-income customers receive the help they need to pay their water bills."
The annual grant for low-income residents who fall behind on their payments will rise Saturday to $216 from $197, an increase of about 9 percent to match the rate hike.
The income threshold for seniors is increasing to $30,600, up from $30,000, to match local inflation. Those who qualify receive 43 percent off the water and sewer rate.
The city also offers a Hardship Exemption Program that waives fees for stormwater and bay restoration.
In all, the programs cost the city about $1 million a year. But an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that tens of thousands of customers who likely qualify for the water department's discount programs are not signed up. Officials set a goal of doubling enrollment in the coming year, but even that target falls short of the need among Baltimore's poor and elderly.
Jeffrey Raymond, a Public Works spokesman, said the financial aid available has been updated in each of the last five years, as rates have risen. The aid increases have typically matched the rate adjustments, he said.
Last year, he said the income threshold for seniors was increased from $25,000 to $30,000.
But activists with environmental group Food and Water Watch analyzed a recent change in the way Baltimore bills its customers for water usage and concluded that the senior program had become considerably less generous for some customers, because fixed fees account management and infrastructure were not subject to the 43 percent discount.
"The existing program is not sufficient to meet the needs," said Mary Grant, a water rights campaigner with the group. "We still need a comprehensive solution to the problem of water affordability — one that will make water service affordable for each and every household."
Officials also are looking at new ways to protect people who might face having their unpaid bills sold in the tax sale process.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she has created a special fund to help people who are behind on bills avoid the sale, but her staff have not provided details on who is eligible or how much money will be available.
The plan Henry is helping to draft is designed to ensure that customers are not paying water bills greater than 3 percent of their income, an affordability level determined by the United Nations. The federal government uses 4.5 percent as a standard. The legislation also is expected to make tweaks to the city's tax sale system.
The idea of capping rates is untested when it comes to water bills — Philadelphia will the be first American city to roll out such a program this year — and could prove controversial if it means driving up rates for wealthier customers.
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Some research suggests the city might actually be able to generate more revenue if people can afford to pay their bills, but even if the proposed program were to cost more, Henry said it's the right thing to do.