Baltimore County is raising water and sewer rates by 15 percent, a move that officials say is needed to repair the region's aging infrastructure but has sparked complaints from residents and politicians.
Under the increases ordered by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a family of four will pay about $141 more per year. The new rates for water and sewer usage plus a higher water distribution charge go into effect July 1.
Kamenetz's administration said the additional revenue — about $32 million a year — is needed to replace and reline pipes, upgrade sewage treatment plants and complete other projects required to bring the city-county water and sewer system into compliance with a federal order. The county estimates it needs to put $900 million into repairs between now and 2020.
"For us to continue to put out the projects that are needed … we're going to have to increase rates," said Edward C. Adams Jr., the county's director of public works. "There's just too much work in the pipeline right now."
But County Council members said they — and their constituents — were blindsided by the rate increase. County Councilman Todd Crandell, a Republican representing Dundalk, said the first he heard of the rate hike was late on Good Friday.
"To my knowledge, the council wasn't aware that the fee increases were under consideration," Crandell said.
The County Council doesn't have oversight over rates and Kamenetz can raise them without its approval, but members said they have questions, including how the size of the increase was determined.
"We definitely have infrastructure needs," said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. Still, he added: "We'll be asking why the fees need to be increased to this degree."
Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she received several calls from angry constituents Monday complaining that the 15 percent hike is "too much of an increase." She said she was frustrated because she had little information to give residents.
Under a consent decree with the federal government signed more than a decade ago, Baltimore county and city agreed to make a number of improvements to the sewer system by 2020. The city and the county share the cost of running the regional water and sewer system through the Metropolitan District, and each jurisdiction sets its own rates and fees.
This is the first increase for about 230,000 county customers since 2010, but the city has implemented several rate increases as part of the campaign to improve the crumbling infrastructure.
City rates increased 15 percent two years ago, and rose 11 percent last year. This summer, rates will increase another 11 percent for city residents, according to Jeffrey Raymond, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.
"We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure this system is not only going to be viable into the future, but for needs we don't even know about," Raymond said.
During this past winter, the city reported dozens of water main breaks, and some 8,000 residents in Baltimore and Baltimore County reported water leaks or being without water. The overall system serves about 410,000 residential and commercial customers.
When the city approved its three-year schedule of increases in 2013, county officials said at the time that they didn't need to increase rates, but would re-evaluate annually.
The county has spent several years making emergency improvements and inspecting the entire system, Adams said. Now they're ready to take on major projects and need more money, he said.
"We've done so much investigation, we've got so much work on our books ready to go out," he said. "We've got to fix that pipe, fix that pipe, fix that pumping station."
The money also will go toward upgrading the region's two major sewage treatment plants, the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Like the city, Baltimore County may need additional increases in future years. Adams said the $32 million that will be raised by the 15 percent hike likely won't be enough to address the system's needs.
"I think we're going to have to come back and re-evaluate it," he said.
The county's rates for water and sewer are less than the city's rates, but the county has more fees that push the total cost higher. The average city bill for water and wastewater service was $784 last year, while the county's average bill was $932, according to an analysis by the city's Department of Public Works.
County residents will see the water rate increase beginning July 1 on their quarterly bill that's sent out by the city. The sewer rate and water distribution charge are billed annually by the county. The two rates and the flat charge each will increase by 15 percent.
Earlier this year Kamenetz unveiled plans to roll back the county's stormwater remediation fee, which had been mandated by the state and derided by critics as the "rain tax."
At the time, the county executive said the reduction would send a signal to residents and business owners that "we feel your frustration" with the fee and other taxes. The move cut the fee for single-family homes to $26 from $39, and also trimmed the fee for commercial properties by one-third.
Crandell, the Dundalk councilman, said that for constituents who feel oppressed by taxes, the water rate increase makes the stormwater cuts look like a hollow gesture.
"Until the administration can provide us with some justification of such a substantial increase, my concern is this has the appearance of the county basically grabbing back the money that it offered up in the cut to the rain tax," Crandell said.
Lauren Watley, a county spokeswoman, said there is no link between the cut in the stormwater fee and the increase in the water and sewer rates.