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Baltimore County, City to review water agreements, including rate calculations

A 24" water main break caused a sink hole on York Road near Padonia Road. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore County and Baltimore City will conduct an “end-to-end review” of the agreement that dictates the water system used by both jurisdictions, including the formulas used to calculate billing rates, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers told the County Council Tuesday.

But Rodgers said it’s too soon to know if that review might mean higher Baltimore County water bills.

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The jurisdictions want to hire an outside organization to evaluate the agreements, which date to the 1970s. The city and county are working on the scope of that contract now, and Rodgers said the six-month review could begin this fall.

The system has been a source of long-standing tension between the city and the county. About 235,000 county households and businesses get water from the city’s system, which is managed by the Baltimore public works department.

“We are operating on agreements that were initiated in 1972 and 1974,” Rodgers said. “I have read both of them. It’s time to revisit them, and really align them with the reality of the day.”

The agreements include algorithms used to determine how much each jurisdiction pays for the water system, and set differing rates for city and county residents. Rodgers said the review will include those algorithms.

The circumstances that determined those formulas in the 1970s have changed, Rodgers said. For instance, the city’s population outnumbered the county’s when the agreements were signed. Today, the county outnumbers the city by more than 200,000. And though the city’s water systems are older than the county’s, she said the costs of maintaining them are changing as both systems age .

“Citizens deserve to know that what their government bills them for is what the true cost is,” Rodgers said.

Councilman Julian Jones asked Rodgers whether officials believe a review will find that the county is being overcharged or undercharged — and whether a changed system would result in county residents paying more or less than before.

Rodgers called the question “premature,” saying neither jurisdiction really knows the answer.

“The city says ‘oh, we’re subsidizing the county,’” she said. “But then the county says ‘oh, we’re subsidizing the city, we have to be subsidizing the city.’ You can’t say either way right now.”

Councilman David Marks called the city-county agreement “confusing and archaic.” He advocated for creating a regional water authority five to 10 years from now. The councilman told the Baltimore Sun last week that he plans to introduce a resolution this summer to ask the General Assembly to create such an authority, with responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure and setting rates.

“This arrangement is unsustainable, I think,” Marks said.

Rodgers replied that a regional authority is not out of the question, “but we’ve got to put one foot before the other to arrive there” by going through the review process to arrive at the right solution.

The city-county agreement caused issues for the county this year after Baltimore was hit with a ransomware attack that prevented county officials from verifying about 14,000 out-of-the-ordinary sewer charges.

The county bills residents for sewer charges annually using city records of their water usage, with the idea that “water in equals water out,” according to a county press release.

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Rodgers said when something is off about a bill — for instance, if a meter says an occupied house had no water usage — the county checks with the city to verify water use. The ransomware attack prevented them from doing that for those 14,000 homes, about 10,000 of which recorded zero water usage. Those homes will be billed a minimum charge and will have to make up for missed fees on next year’s bill, Rodgers said.

The county is encouraging all 14,000 to call to verify bills and ask questions, and has increased its customer service staff by four people to deal with the increase in calls, Rodgers said.

Councilman Izzy Patoka agreed with Marks that the region needs a water authority. He said the current arrangement creates difficulties for council members who must answer to their constituents about water main breaks that the city is responsible for repairing. In the past few weeks, water main breaks shut down Belair Road once and York Road twice.

Those breaks are a source of tension for both city and county residents, Jones said. He heard a city resident on the news say that if their water main break had happened in Owings Mills, it would have been fixed.

“I was laughing,” Jones said. “That’s what my constituents say – if it happened downtown, they would’ve fixed it!”

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