Plan would raise Baltimore water rates over next three years, offer poor residents help with monthly bills

Baltimore residents face at least three more years of higher water bills under a rate hike proposed Thursday by the Department of Public Works — which also wants to give low-income residents a break on what they pay.

Under the proposal, which will go before the city’s spending board on Jan. 9, water rates would go up more than 9 percent every year, starting next year.

The city, citing costly but necessary improvements to its aging water and sewer systems, has regularly raised rates in recent years, to the point that residents pay double what they did nine years ago.

The latest rate hike, which would take effect July 1, would add $8 a month to a typical bill for a family of three, the department said.

Meanwhile, the department proposes to launch “Baltimore H2O Assists,” a program that would discount water rates for households with incomes below 175 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $36,365 for a three-person family. Those households would get a 43 percent reduction in water and sewer rates, and also would not have to pay Bay Restoration and Stormwater Remediation fees, the agency said.

Public works spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said more than 40,000 households — of the more than 180,000 residential water customers — could qualify for the discount.

The proposal surprised water affordability advocates, who have been working on legislation that would include a low-income assistance plan with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. He is scheduled to announce the bill Monday.

Young’s legislation would cap the amount of water bills on a sliding scale for low-income households: from 1 percent of income for those 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.

“It’s giving people what they need,” said Mary Grant, who directs the Public Water for All campaign for the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. More than 65,400 households in Baltimore would be eligible, she said.

Grant called the public works department’s program “inadequate” because it doesn’t cap the amount a household pays for water. Groups, including the United Nations, consider water affordable if it costs no more than 3 percent of a household’s income, she said.

“It’s not a comprehensive solution,” Grant said of the agency’s proposal. “It’s not enough. It’s not really meeting the need that’s out there.”

Raymond said he did not want to comment on another group’s proposal, but he defended the department’s plan.

“We’ve been developing the program for months, making sure it is a sustainable, progressive program that is going to reach the people it needs to reach,” he said. “It’s going to provide meaningful assistance.”

Water bills have been a continuing problem in the city for years. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that only about 8,800 customers were enrolled in existing low-income assistance programs, a fraction of those who are likely eligible, meaning many are under threat of losing their homes in a tax sale. In contrast, some 21,000 households availed themselves of state electricity and heating financial aid programs, which have similar eligibility criteria.

The city has also struggled to bill accurately for water use, something that Young’s legislation would address by creating a customer advocate who could investigate problems and negotiate solutions with the public works department.

In 2012, the city had to refund about $9 million after overcharging residential and business customers. It switched to a new billing system, but some problems continued. Earlier this year, for example, hundreds of customers received bills of more than $50,000, which city officials attributed to a software upgrade.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis. “A consumer advocate will really help with this.”

Young’s bill would create the office of “water-customer advocacy and appeal,” independent of the public works department. The office would be able to conduct hearings at the request of “aggrieved customers.”

City Councilman Bill Henry, who has been working with advocates on an income-based billing system, said research has found that such a plan increases the collection rate.

“If people are given a bill they can pay, they are more likely to pay it,” he said. “Income-based billing provides people with more reasonable water bills, and they will pay them, rather than having a big chunk of people who are not paying anything at all. It will end up being cost-neutral.”

Last year, Philadelphia began enrolling residents in an income-based water billing system, believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Like Baltimore, it has had a high percentage of residents struggling to pay for utilities — and an aging water and sewer infrastructure that requires costly repairs and thus higher rates.

That Baltimore faces higher water rates again is not surprising. It has been rehabilitating and replacing aging water mains for years, and is under a consent decree with federal and state agencies to address years of sewer overflows that have polluted waterways and violated the Clean Water Act.

“The unfortunate reality,” Davis said, “is the system has been underinvested in for generations.”

The city provides water service to surrounding counties, which could be affected by the city’s proposed rate hike.

Howard County, for example, signed a new service agreement approved by the city’s Board of Estimates in October of last year that implemented a rate structure tied to city rate increases, according to a document the comptroller’s office prepared for the spending panel.

“Increased cost of water and wastewater service will be passed on to Baltimore County through the City-County Agreements,” the document said. “Baltimore County establishes its own water rates with city concurrence.”

The public works department is hosting meetings in December for residents to learn more about the proposed rate increase and low-income assistance program. Meetings are set for Dec. 11 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church, 3100 Walbrook Ave.; Dec. 12, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at National Federation of the Blind, 200 E. Wells St., and Dec. 15, 9 a.m. to noon, at the New Waverly United Methodist Church, 644 E. 33rd St. The department anticipates scheduling other meetings.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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