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Relief OK'd on utility bills

The Baltimore Sun

With utility bills on the rise, Baltimore City officials approved a series of proposals yesterday to help low-income residents pay for water service -- and at the same time proposed a small increase in the cost of that service.

Senior citizens in Baltimore whose household income is $25,000 or less would get a 30 percent break on water and sewer bills. Also, grants to help pay those bills would be made available before water is shut off.

In proposing the more lenient system, city officials acknowledged the increased price of gas and electricity and said they hoped the effort to assist with water bills would reduce the number of homes sold at tax sale against a homeowner's will.

Baltimore has also begun shutting off water sooner -- when an account is behind $250 rather than $500 -- to force customers to address the delinquency rather than let bills accumulate.

City officials said that about 400 accounts have been shut off since April 2. More than 300 of those properties were vacant. Asked about potential sanitation issues, the officials said that the Department of Housing and Community Development and the city health department would start visiting the homes of residents whose water is shut off within 48 hours to assess their situations.

But as the Board of Estimates approved yesterday the programs -- which officials estimate will affect as many as 7,000 residents -- it also proposed a 4 percent increase in sewerage and water rates that would affect millions of customers in Baltimore City and Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.

"We have been working very hard to minimize the rate increase," said Baltimore Department of Public Works acting Director David E. Scott. "We've been really focused on making sure we're as efficient as possible."

Baltimore County expects its rates to increase 7.5 percent, said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman.

Water and sewerage rates in Baltimore have triggered contentious political debate in the past. Last year, the city proposed raising water and sewerage rates by 30 percent over three years, an idea that was ultimately tabled.

Mayor Sheila Dixon convened a task force last spring to study how the city could reduce the number of properties that wind up being sold at tax sale -- often for relatively small amounts -- while continuing to use the threat of such sales to push residents to pay.

Water and sewer rates have steadily increased every year since 2002. The money is needed to comply with a federal order to eliminate overflows that send thousands of gallons of raw sewage into area streams each year, city officials have said.

But as the cost has gone up, it has become increasingly difficult for residents on fixed incomes to pay. As of early April, more than 11,200 properties in Baltimore had been slapped with liens for unpaid water bills.

One program approved yesterday, the Low-Income Senior Citizens Discount, would reduce sewer and water bills by 30 percent for seniors who are city residents and whose household income does not exceed $25,000.

Another initiative, the Low-Income Assistance Crisis Intervention Grant program, would be expanded to offer slightly more grant money to help residents pay their bills. The city also will offer those grants when delinquent notices are mailed, rather than waiting for the water to be shut off.

Those programs would start May 1 and city officials estimated that they may cost as much as $700,000 in the first year.

The city efforts come shortly after the General Assembly approved legislation this year that would raise the amount of a lien that the city can choose not to send to tax sale from $100 to $250. That bill is awaiting a signature from Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Benjamin Meli Jr., chief of fiscal services for the water and wastewater bureau of the Department of Public Works, said that the city expects to collect about $287 million in water and sewerage fees in the current fiscal year. The increased rate would bring in an additional $7 million.

Baltimore's sewerage system serves about 1.6 million customers in the region and the water system has about 1.8 million customers.

For the average household -- estimated to be using 117,000 gallons a year -- the annual water and sewer bill would increase from $795 to $827 under the proposal, which would take affect May 29, if approved.

"We'll be able to help people earlier," Meli said. The plan "will keep water and sewer rates reasonable while providing protections for low-income seniors and other city residents."


sewerage, water updates

For more information about Baltimore's programs to help residents pay their water and sewer bill, contact 311.

A hearing on the city's proposed 4 percent increase in water and sewer rates has been scheduled for 9 a.m. May 28 at City Hall.

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