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Baltimore water, sewer rates to increase

The Baltimore Board of Estimates approved a double-digit increase in the water rate.

Baltimore residents will pay about 33 percent more for water and be charged two new fees under a three-year plan to help pay for repairs to the city's crumbling infrastructure and fix an error-prone water billing system.

Baltimore's spending panel approved the city water rate increase on Wednesday during a nearly three-hour public hearing at City Hall. More than a dozen people testified against the plan at the hearing.

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

The Board of Estimates voted to increase the water rate an average of 9.9 percent annually and sewer rates 9 percent a year through fiscal year 2019. The plan also calls for new "infrastructure" and "account management" charges.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted against the increases. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake controls the other three votes on the five-member board.

"This is a problem none of us created," the mayor said. "The infrastructure's been languishing for decades.

"The only way we're going to have a modern system in place, to help address some of these long-standing issues that we face, is that we modernize our water infrastructure, that we improve the meters, that we improve the billing, that we tackle these issues head-on," she said.

City auditors have called the increase "reasonable."

The department said some customers will see smaller increases or reduced bills because minimum-use charges for properties that use little or no water will be eliminated.

The residents who testified against the rate hike said they understood the city's water and sewer systems need to be fixed, but they urged the board to find another way to pay for it.

Several said they were particularly concerned about the effects of the higher bills on elderly, low-income and disabled residents.

Alexis Schofield, 63, told the board she lives on a fixed income in her childhood home in Ednor Gardens. She teared up as she implored the board to reject the rate increases.

"I cannot afford any of this," she said. "I can barely afford to pay the bills that I have."

Officials say they will switch from a quarterly billing cycle to monthly bills starting Oct. 11.

Schofield said quarterly billing allowed her some time to save up to pay the water bill every three months.

With the rate uptick and the monthly billing period, Schofield said, "you might as well shut my water off now."

"I've worked since I was 17 years old and have nothing to show for it except the childhood home that I live in," she said. "I have a roof over my head, and I can barely pay my bills every month."

Activist Kim Trueheart said exemptions should be created for those residents who have had raw sewage backups in their basements due to the city's attempts to keep waste from flowing into its waterways.

"Those people need to be exempted," she said.

Increased rates could make it more difficult not only for people to live in the city but for developers to build affordable housing, said Patrick Stewart, a development and planning professional at Pennrose Management.

Pennrose has built more than 1,000 units of affordable housing at 13 properties in Baltimore in the past 15 years, Stewart said. The firm owns and manages the properties it builds, and it pays for residents' water and sewer bills, he said.

"Beyond monthly and annual operating expenses, these rate hikes could have the effect of actually hindering our ability and others' ability to preserve existing and produce new affordable housing in Baltimore," he said.

The proposed rate increase would raise water and sewer costs by more than $300 per unit, said Gayle V. Filo, Pennrose's vice president of operations.

Stewart suggested the vote be delayed until all effects of the rate increases can be properly studied.

Pratt said she voted against the rate increase "due to the uncertainties that can affect the estimates of revenues and expenses that are projected for the next three years, especially with the implementation of a new rate structure."

"I also object to the proposed multiple-year rate increase," Pratt said. "If a rate increase is necessary, it should be analyzed and approved by the Board of Estimates on an annual basis."

Young said he wants the city to examine unfinished, contracted jobs that have slowed efforts to comply with a federal consent decree requiring a $1.2 billion sewer overhaul.

He said he has asked repeatedly for federal assistance so that the burden of paying for the federally mandated work doesn't fall entirely on taxpayers.

"I've voted no ever since they've been having these increases, even though I know that we need to get these infrastructure improvements done," Young said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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