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Baltimore’s shared water and sewer systems should have regional oversight, according to newest study

The latest study on Baltimore’s beleaguered water and sewer systems suggests a regional water authority, with representatives from both the county and the city on it — something that county elected officials have been pushing for a few years.

The new report provides a comprehensive review of the business processes that govern the water and sewer delivery system in Baltimore county and city, identifying potential opportunities to improve how the two jurisdictions could work together to provide efficient and affordable water and wastewater services.

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Jointly commissioned by the city and county, the study was conducted by consulting firm NewGen Strategies & Solutions, costing $867,417, according to Sean Naron, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

“This report is a critical and long overdue step toward improving how our jurisdictions can better work in partnership to modernize our shared water system,” said Olszewski in a statement.

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The review seeks to lay out a blueprint for how to fix the problems that have plagued the water system for decades, while addressing ongoing issues such as customer billing.

“This comprehensive review is a critical first step in fixing the system once and for all,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott said in a statement.

Under the current system, both jurisdictions receive water through a system managed by the Baltimore City Department of Public Works under an agreement that dates back to 1972, in which the city bills all customers for water use.

County Councilman David Marks is a firm believer in moving toward a regional water authority, which is one of the recommendations highlighted in the review.

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“With many of my constituents in Baltimore County, there is a frustration in the accountability,” he said. “People are paying higher water bills and they don’t seem to think that the money is going to spent wisely, so I think one of the major issues is that if you have regional water authority with both county and city representatives on it — it would help create a better sense of accountability.”

Marks, a Republican, also said it will provide customers with more knowledge on water services and a better understanding of pending projects.

“They would know the fees that they’re paying for are being put to good use,” he said. “Right now I don’t think there is a sense of trust.”

The report concluded with methods to address existing problems in the current model, suggesting both jurisdictions merge operations of the systems to acquire lower shared costs, and explore additional regional solutions like potential alternative governance structures in order to improve water services across the region.

“I hope the report doesn’t sit on the shelf collecting dust because there are a lot of good observations dealing with the system, which is a century old at this point,” Marks said.

The new report comes after a joint study conducted by the city and county inspectors general last year, which found 8,650 open repair requests for water meter problems in the county alone — 95% of them unresolved for more than a year. Both the city and county’s inspector generals recommended a more “coordinated” approach.

“Most jurisdictions have regional water authorities,” Marks said. “This is a big issue that both Republicans and Democrats can work together to get done in the Maryland General Assembly. [The Assembly] often talks about getting big reforms done, but this is one that hasn’t been addressed.”

The jurisdictions will continue to work collaboratively to consider the recommendations outlined in the new study.

“I appreciate Baltimore City’s commitment to this collaborative effort, and my administration remains open to exploring to all productive paths forward, including consideration of a regional authority so that we can best support all of our residents,” Olszewski said in a statement.

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