Standing at the front of a church in Waverly early on Saturday morning, Baltimore Public Works director Rudy Chow delivered a 45-minute sermon on water — not holy water, but rather the ordinary kind that comes out of the tap.
Chow’s department is responsible for delivering clean water to 200,000 city households and taking away their sewage. At the same time, it’s on a mission to upgrade century-old infrastructure that breaks often and sometimes spectacularly, with streets caving in or water gushing up from under the ground.
Those upgrades are expensive, and Chow’s talk was part of a campaign to convince city residents that he is spending their money prudently while asking them to fork over more of it in the form of higher bills.
The department is proposing to raise rates about 9 percent in each of the next three years — an increase that Chow said he understands is a hardship for some residents.
“It’s very difficult for us to make that decision,” he said. “At the same time, as I have just illustrated to you, we are in a state of crisis and emergency. We cannot afford to pass this problem to the next generation.”
To soften the blow, Chow is pitching an expanded discount program that he said could help the city’s 43,000 worst-off households reduce a typical $100 monthly bill by about $40.
Households making less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level — about $36,000 for a family of three — would be eligible.
In the past, the water department has generally only stepped in to aid customers once they fall behind on their bills. Under the new program the department would help up front.
“Why wait until someone is in trouble before we step up to help them?” Chow asked. “That’s why we’re transforming our program.”
The city’s Board of Estimates, a five-member panel controlled by Mayor Catherine Pugh, is scheduled to hold a hearing on the rate increases and discount program on Jan. 9.
Chow said that he would want every eligible household signed up for the discounts and asked those who attended Saturday’s meeting to join him as ambassadors.
Should the city see 100 percent participation, that could cost the water department around $20 million a year in lost revenue.
But its track record in enrolling people in existing discounts is poor, with only 2,000 households signed up. And anticipating signups to realistically be closer to 50 percent, Chow said, officials have only set aside $10 million to cover the new discounts.
The event Saturday was the third of a planned six community meetings to give the public a chance to ask questions about the rate increases.
The department said the first meeting, held Tuesday evening at a church in West Baltimore, was attended by a standing-room-only crowd.
But at the end of an hour-long question-and-answer session on Saturday, Park Heights resident Margaret Lloyd said she wondered how good a job the public works department was doing getting the word out. Looking around the church, she said the three dozen staff who accompanied Chow outnumbered members of the public scattered in the pews.
“It was very little community people here,” Lloyd told Chow. “Very little.”
What’s more, Lloyd said, she was worried about people who make too much to qualify for the discounts but still struggle with the cost of water as rates rise.
“Now you’re adding more of an expense to my already constricted income, but yet I’m not poor enough to meet this program,” she said. “What’s out there for me?”
Chow said that for people who make just too much to qualify for the discount, the department would recommend plumbing upgrades that would reduce water usage — more efficient toilets and low-flow shower heads.
“There are a variety of things that perhaps we can help provide,” he said.
The City Council is considering legislation to create a more ambitious overhaul of the city’s water billing system. The council’s plan, which would cap water bills at a small percentage of a household’s income, is designed to ensure that no one spends more than 3 percent of their income on water, by giving discounts to people who make up to twice the poverty rate.
Bills for the households making half the federal poverty rate or less would be held to 1 percent of their annual income — an effective discount of 90 percent or more for a family of three paying a typical $100 monthly bill.