Water rates in Baltimore will go up 30 percent over the next three years to help pay for needed improvements to the city’s aging water and sewer systems following a vote by the city’s spending board Wednesday.
The divided board voted 3-to-2 to approve the rate increase after hearing a Department of Public Works presentation supporting it and public testimony against the increase.
The water rates, already double what they were nine years ago, will increase more than 9 percent each year for the next three years to cover the costly, but necessary, infrastructure improvements, Public Works Director Rudy Chow said.
The first rate increase, which takes effect July 1, will add about $8 a month to a typical bill for a family of three, according to the Department of Public Works.
Chow blamed the rising water bills in recent years on federally mandated improvements to the city’s decrepit sewer system and the lack of increases in previous decades.
“This water rate increase we have been experiencing in recent years is very much needed,” Chow said. “It’s a very difficult situation to be in, but we are taking the position that we no longer can bear the can being kicked down the road. The price is going to be only greater, it won’t be diminished, over time.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Solicitor Andre Davis voted with Chow to approve the increases; City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt voted against them.
The mayor argued that a broader injustice would be continuing to ignore the problems in the city’s sewer and drainage systems that have resulted in sewage leaks and water main pipes breaking in homes, schools and other buildings in the city.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road, and that’s what we continue to do,” Pugh said. “If we had done what we were supposed to do 15-20 years ago, we would not be sitting here. It’s unfair that rates have to increase, but at the same time, it’s also unfair that people have to suffer.”
To help with rising water bills, the city’s Board of Estimates also approved Public Works’ “Baltimore H2O Assists” program Tuesday. The program will discount water rates for households with incomes below 175 percent of the federal poverty level.
Five members of the City Council demanded Tuesday that Public Works launch an independent study to justify the water-rate increase.
Pratt and Young, who have voted against previous rate increases, gave separate reasons for their “nay” votes Wednesday.
The comptroller said the department previously asked to increase rates beyond what Public Works officials have demonstrated is necessary, and she said she voted against Wednesday’s increase because the department did not provide enough information to justify it.
The council president didn’t question the cost of improvements, but he said they should not be borne by city residents, who in many cases cannot pay their bills.
Young has proposed legislation to cap water bills on a sliding scale for low-income households: from 1 percent of income for those who make less than 50 percent of the poverty level to 3 percent for those whose income is from 100 percent to 200 percent of the poverty level.
Molly Amster, Baltimore director for Jews United for Justice, part of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, argued that the Board of Estimates should not raise rates until the city commissions a study and addresses billing problems, lack of due process and affordability.
Water-rate studies are considered best practice before raising rates, and they are used by large and small jurisdictions across the state, she said.
“It is clear that our city needs more transparency and accountability in our water-billing system, and as city residents, we deserve to know how DPW sets our water rates and why it needs to raise them,” Amster said.
Tracy Lingo, staff director for Unite Here Local 7, representing 2,000 hospitality workers in Baltimore, testified that while a third of Baltimoreans are putting more than 3 percent of their income toward their water bills, the Marriott Waterfront in Harbor East has an outstanding water bill of more than $1.4 million.
The $155 million hotel, already exempt from municipal property taxes under a 25-year agreement with the city, paid just $813.91 toward that balance in its most recent payment Dec. 20, she said, citing numbers from the city’s website.
“Before Baltimore asks working people to pay even more for their water, the city should make sure our largest and wealthiest employers are paying their fair share,” Lingo said.
Davis, the city solicitor, responded that the law department is aggressively pursuing all unpaid water bills and “gives no commercial user a pass.”
The outstanding $1.4 million charge was the result of a “prior, erroneous water bill,” Marriott spokeswoman Julie A. Codus said in an emailed statement.
“As a responsible business operator, we contacted the City to refute the bill, and we’ve been in ongoing correspondence with them to address the matter,” Codus wrote. “We hope to resolve this as soon as possible.”