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Baltimore considers increasing water bills by 33 percent, charging new fees

Baltimore officials plan to increase how much citizens pay for water.

Baltimore residents would pay about 33 percent more for water and be charged two new fees under a three-year plan being considered by city officials to help fix the city's crumbling infrastructure and error-plagued billing system.

Water rates would increase an average of 9.9 percent annually and sewer rates would increase 9 percent a year through fiscal year 2019. The plan also calls for new "infrastructure" and "account management" charges.

The Department of Public Works said the yearly water bill for a typical family would likely increase about $170 by the third year of the plan.

The rate proposals also include increases for the city's water customers in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties.

"Baltimore City must continue to invest in our underground infrastructure," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Tuesday. "Raising rates is never easy, but ensuring quality water service and a cleaner environment has to be our legacy."

The city's finance and public works directors are recommending the rate increases to the Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake. The Department of Public Works has requested a public hearing in August.

The proposed rate increases are expected to meet opposition.

Michael Eugene Johnson, director of the Paul Robeson Institute for Social Change, said in an email that he is rallying community members to "take a stand and organize against this ... serious issue, and we mean a real stand on this 'life and death' issue."

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said her auditors are analyzing the proposal to determine whether the rate increase is necessary.

Rawlings-Blake blamed Congress for not providing cities with more federal money to upgrade aging pipes and water and sewer facilities.

"Because this has not been done," she said, "we alone must continue the progress we have made to protect our citizens by renewing our mains and reducing disruptions caused by water main breaks and sewer overflows."

As part of the overhaul of the city's water-billing system, officials say they plan to switch from a quarterly billing cycle to monthly bills starting Oct. 11.

City officials say the rate increases are needed to finish the "replacement of all residential and commercial water meters in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County."

The new meters are being outfitted with wireless technology that is supposed to make meter-reading more accurate and improve the timeliness of billing.

Customers have long complained about erroneous water bills. The problem issue gained widespread attention in 2012 when the city auditor found that the Department of Public Works had overcharged thousands of homes and businesses by a total of at least $9 million.

The new system will eliminate the current minimum-use charges for properties that use little or no water. Instead, the city plans to begin charging an account management fee to pay for billing and customer-support services and an infrastructure charge to help pay to fix pipes and other infrastructure.

The management fee would will be a set amount. The infrastructure fee would vary based on the type of meter a customer uses — with higher fees for larger meters.

"The new rate structure will be fairer than ever before," said Baltimore Public Works Director Rudolph S. Chow. "Minimal usage charges will be a thing of the past, and customers can save money through conservation."

Chow said the new meters and billing system will allow customers to "track their water usage on their phones or tablets and spot potentially costly leaks."

"Accuracy in billing has already improved tremendously and will serve many future generations of Baltimore water customers," he said.

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said a typical residential customer would pay just 3.4 percent more this year because the minimum charge would be eliminated and commercial customers would pay a larger portion of the rate increase.

"Many customers will see even smaller increases, and some will see outright reductions in their annual outlay for water bills," Raymond said. "This is going to be a great change for many Baltimore customers."

Officials said the increases would will help the city comply with federal and state mandates "protecting public health and environment, as well as investing in our aging underground water and sewer systems."

Baltimore has embarked on a six-year, $1.3 billion capital improvement plan for water projects that includes replacing water mains, covering open water reservoirs and renovating pumping stations. The city is also on a six-year, $701 million improvement plan for wastewater projects that includes major upgrades at the city-owned Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County.

Officials plan to increase water rates in bulk purchases made by Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties by similar amounts.

The city provides water to about 400,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. County officials announced in March that water and sewer rates there would increase 21 percent by the start of fiscal year 2018. The county's rate is set independently of the city's.

In Baltimore, water and wastewater services are, by law, self-sustaining operations that operate outside the traditional city budget process.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who sits on the Board of Estimates, called the proposed rate increase understandable and necessary, because the city is undertaking an overhaul of its billing system.

"It is understandable that such an overhaul can be expensive, but it is necessary to ensure accurate billing, properly functioning water lines and a clean water supply," Young said. "I look forward to a robust discussion at the public hearing on the proposed water rate increase, its impact on water bills, and how we can ensure affordability for our residents in need."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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