Council members, faith and labor leaders rally against rising water rates

Protesters rallied outside City Hall Monday to decry Baltimore’s third water rate increase in two years.

With the latest 9.4 percent increase effective this week, the cost of water in the city has doubled over the last eight years. A typical home paying $84 a month will now pay $92.

Advocates say the increases are outpacing the ability of many to pay.

The Rev. Mark James said he nearly lost his Northeast Baltimore church over a water bill. The $6,000 bill sent his congregation into a protracted legal battle.

“This is an atrocity,” James said. “We have got to be able to find some humanity in our governance.”

The rate increases were approved by the city’s spending board in 2016. For every 748 gallons, or 100 cubic feet of water, a household uses, the cost will be $2.73. Bay and stormwater fees will not increase.

Water shot up from a fountain in front of City Hall Monday. Demonstrators said the high temperatures — which prompted the city health commissioner to warn about the dangers of the extreme heat — made access to drinking water more important than ever.

City officials say they have no choice but to raise the rates. The money being raised will go toward billions of dollars of improvements to the city’s crumbling, century-old sewer system, including the installation of buried tanks to protect drinking water, upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and the replacement and repair of at least 15 miles of water mains each year.

Public works spokesman Jeffery Raymond said the city has “waited too long to take these investments seriously.

“Now you see other jurisdictions in the region and across the country raising their rates as well as they attempt to catch up,” he said.

New water and sewer rates in Baltimore County, for instance, took effect on Sunday. Rates increased an average of 13.9 percent, up from an 8.4 percent increase last year. The county has raised water and sewer rates for the past three years.

Researchers at Michigan State University have estimated that more than a third of U.S. households will find water unaffordable within the next five years. That means it will cost more than 4.5 percent of their income.

The researchers, who were funded by the National Science Foundation, found that aging infrastructure, urban population decline and climate change are contributing to an affordability crisis.

Raymond said the city’s public works department does not have any proposals in place for future rate adjustments for Baltimore customers.

“We also understand that affordability has become a significant issue for our customers,” he said.

The city has made financial aid for senior citizens and low-income households more generous alongside the rate hikes, Raymond said. Payment plans are available for residents struggling to pay their water bills.

An annual grant for eligible low-income families will increase from $216 to $236. The maximum income to qualify for a discount program for seniors will increase from $30,600 to $31,500. Bay restoration and stormwater fees are waived for participants.

City Council members Zeke Cohen and Shannon Sneed joined faith leaders and labor advocates at the rally to denounce the rate increases and the practice of sending homes and churches to tax sale to collect the debt and possibly force foreclosure.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh imposed a moratorium in January on tax sales of debt from water bills at owner-occupied homes. Legislation that passed the General Assembly in April has excluded water liens on all residential properties from the 2019 tax sale.

Cohen said water bill-related problems still account for the majority of constituent service requests to his office.

“And yet with all of this chaos and confusion we are, again, raising the rates,” Cohen said. “It is wrong, it is immoral, it is inhumane.”

James, the pastor, said his 35-member congregation got into trouble a few winters ago after the church started leaking and the water bill started growing. He said he reached an agreement with the city to pay the bill, but he didn't know the property had outstanding fines stemming from a problem with the church's fire alarm.

The city sent the church to the tax sale in 2015. A California investor bought the debt and filed to foreclose the next year, according to court records.

James said the church fought to remain open, even creating a GoFundMe page to raise money to pay its debts. Eventually, the congregation beat eviction on May 8, he said.

“Thankfully, through a lot of support from our friends, a lot of delegate support, a lot of activist support, we were able to really rally and turn things around,” James said.

City officials said homeowners should call 410-396-5398 to apply for assistance.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

llumpkin@baltsun.com

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An earlier version of this article included the incorrect measurement
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