Over the past eight years, Baltimore's water customers have racked up $9 million in unpaid bills without having to worry about their water being shut off.
Those days are coming to an end. Yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced that starting in December, the city will turn off the water to customers who are at least six months behind in their payments and owe more than $500.
"There is no such thing as free water," O'Malley said. "The time when we could look the other way and eat the revenue is past."
The decision reverses a long-standing policy that resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue. Nearly 6,000 delinquent accounts - residents and businesses in Baltimore and some of the surrounding counties - owe the city for unpaid water and sewer bills.
O'Malley said he did not know why the no shut-off policy, begun in 1992, went into effect. "We'll assume it was compassion," he said.
Under the new policy, the city will shut off water to delinquent clients in Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County. Baltimore County will pay the city for delinquent accounts there, then use its resources to recover the loss.
More than 1.8 million people in metropolitan Baltimore depend on the city's water system, and many began receiving notices this week about the policy change.
City officials estimate that the new policy could bring Baltimore an additional $1.6 million a year, though that money cannot be used to help cash-strapped Baltimore contend with its projected deficits.
The city collects about $63 million a year in water-use fees. That money, and $91.5 million from sewer usage fees, goes to separate funds set up in the Bureau of Water and Waste Water for improvements, maintenance and operation of the city's water and sewer system. This year, the city raised water rates by 19 percent and sewer rates by 15 percent.
O'Malley said city agencies are putting together a comprehensive plan to make sure water service is not shut off to the poor and those with severe health problems. Under state law, any residence without running water is declared uninhabitable and must be vacated because of the unsanitary that result from not having water.
"We will be working particularly closely on cases with young kids, babies, people on dialysis," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "Most importantly, we don't want anyone put out."
The city's approach will be similar to plans worked out this summer to help people pay delinquent utility bills. A fatal fire prompted a review of gas and electric service. At that time, city social workers found many families living without electricity because of unpaid Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bills.
George L. Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works, said his office is working with the departments of Social Services and Housing and Community Development to let people know help is available in paying overdue water bills.
Winfield said DPW will compile a list of addresses where residents have a chronic illness or are taking kidney dialysis treatments. Those properties will be exempt from having their water shut off, he said.
John M. Wesley, housing department spokesman, said the department will work with any of its public housing tenants and Section 8 clients who are delinquent. Though the department generally pays utility bills, some tenants might have different rental agreements.
"We would just encourage them if they are in arrears to notify us," he said.
City officials said they will focus on businesses and owner-occupied residences before turning their attention to apartment complexes.
The magnitude of the delinquency problem came to light this spring during a Board of Estimates meeting on raising the city's water and sewer rates. At the time, Winfield said he was considering a crackdown on delinquent clients.
Two business groups, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable, also referred to the delinquent payment problem in their management and efficiency report on city government released this year.
Each day the city takes about 245 million gallons of water from the Liberty, Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs, in the surrounding counties. At peak capacity, those city-owned reservoirs hold 73 billion gallons of water. The Bureau of Water and Waste Water operates three filtration plants, 17 pumping stations and maintains 4,700 miles of water mains.
The city provides its residents and those in Baltimore County and northern Anne Arundel County with treated water. Howard, Harford and Carroll counties get untreated water from the city's system. Those jurisdictions then treat the water and bill their customers.
O'Malley said the policy change should turn around a lax attitude that has developed toward paying water bills. The new approach also will bring more money to a system in need of constant repair, while holding down water rates.
City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, whose East Baltimore district has some of the city's poorer neighborhoods, said he supports the mayor's decision.
"The city cannot afford to let people continue to have water service and not pay," said Young, a Democrat.