Baltimore council considering charter amendment to ban sale of city water system

The City Council, concerned about lobbying efforts to privatize Baltimore’s water supply, is planning to fast-track legislation Monday that would make it illegal to sell or lease the water system.

The effort, led by council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, has widespread support on the council. Young’s plan is to introduce a charter amendment Monday, and waive council rules to vote on it immediately.

“I have always been a proponent of retaining our city’s assets, which is why I am completely opposed to the privatization of Baltimore’s water system,” Young said in a statement. “Access to clean and affordable water should be looked at as a basic human right.”

If approved by the council, the measure would be put to voters in November. They could make Baltimore the first city in the country to amend its charter to preserve public ownership and control over its water and sewer systems, according to Young's office, and the largest U.S. city to prohibit the sale or lease of its water system.

Northampton, Mass., passed legislation in 2016 prohibiting the sale or lease of its water system.

Private operators have attempted to make inroads into Baltimore’s water system for years, but have been consistently rebuffed.

Hundreds rallied outside City Hall To maintain city ownership in 2014. Officials said at the time that they had no plans to privatize the water system.

Baltimore leaders said the same thing again last year, when lobbyists pitched lawmakers on a plan for French company Suez Environment to take operating control of the system.

Suez — a descendant of the company that built Egypt’s Suez Canal — has pitched city officials on a lease agreement in which the company would pay the city upfront to take control of operating Baltimore’s water system and then collect the money charged from water bills. The company would hire current Department of Public Works employees, honor union contracts, and pledge to raise water rates only minimally.

If the council approves the llegislation Monday, Mayor Catherine Pugh would have until Aug. 13 to sign it and put it on the November ballot.

Pugh said she supports the effort. She noted she first proposed the idea at the end of June.

“I’m delighted that the City Council is supportive of my earlier efforts to safeguard Baltimore City’s water system and require that it is always operated in the best interests of those who rely on it, and for generations to come,” Pugh said in a statement.

Baltimore's water system employs 1,500 workers and provides drinking water to 1.8 million people in the region.

Baltimore residents are struggling to pay increasingly expensive water bills. Protesters rallied outside City Hall last month to decry a 9.4 percent increase in bills. The cost of water in the city has doubled in the last eight years.

An independent economist concluded last year that increases in the price of tap water have pushed some of Baltimore’s poorest residents far beyond their ability to pay their bills.

As the number who can’t afford to pay climbs, economist Roger Colton warned, the city could find itself in a “downward spiral,” forced to impose larger and larger price increases to pay for court-ordered infrastructure upgrades.

Council members say privatizing Baltimore’s water supply would lead to even higher bills. A Food & Water Watch survey of the 500 largest water systems found that for-profit providers charge an average of 59 percent more than local governments for the same amount of water.

“Water privatization is simply unethical, immoral, and dangerous,” Rianna Eckel, Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “Such a loss of local control can result in skyrocketing water bills, escalating water shutoff rates, downsizing public sector jobs, and deteriorating service quality.”

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