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Baltimore County announces plan to raise water, sewer rates over two years

Baltimore County residents are facing another increase in water, sewer rates.

After seeing a 15 percent increase in water and sewer rates last year, Baltimore County residents will face another 12 percent hike this summer.

And an additional 8 percent increase is planned in 2017.

Officials say the rate hikes, announced Tuesday, are needed to raise $54 million to repair aging infrastructure.

"These ongoing improvements must be made to protect our citizens, now and for the next generation," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in a statement. "As a responsible government, we must bite the bullet now and not kick the can down the road."

When the two new hikes are taken into account, customers will pay nearly 21 percent more beginning July 1, 2017, compared to what they are paying now — amounting to an additional $227 a year for the average family of four, according to the county.

The hikes will take effect July 1 of this year and next.

"My gut reaction is: That's a lot of money," said Michael Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, an umbrella group of Towson-area homeowner organizations. "Do I want to pay another 220 bucks a year? No. But honestly, it's got to be done, and as you read around the country, everybody is grappling with [water and sewer infrastructure issues].

"Unfortunately, it costs money to deal with this stuff," Ertel said.

The money will help replace water pipes, reline sewer pipes and improve treatment plants, measures needed to help prevent water main breaks and sewage overflows, officials said.

County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, called the fee hikes "another burden on taxpayers," but said she did not believe the county executive would increase the rate if it weren't necessary.

"The issue here is aging infrastructure in an older county," said County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. "I do think the county needs to look at how we are paying for infrastructure for new development. That adds up."

While the County Council does not have oversight over the rate increases, some members say they were taken aback by the size of the increase.

"It was sort of a shock to me when I heard about it," said Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. "It is a lot of money. It causes me to stop in my tracks."

Still, Jones said he wanted to reserve judgment until learning more from the county executive's office.

The county is under a 2005 consent decree with the federal government requiring it to pay for improvements in the sewer system.

"The goal of the consent decree … is to eliminate all sanitary sewer overflows," said Ed Adams, the county's director of public works. "That's our goal, to have a perfect system, and also to be proactive."

Officials say they have nearly completed inspections of more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines and modernized or replaced half of the county's sewage pumping stations.

"We have shown a massive amount of improvement," Adams said. "We're a lot better today than we were several years ago."

The county finished or worked on more than $51 million in water and sewer projects in the past year, according to the department. Projects now under construction include water main replacements, pipe cleaning and lining, and rehabilitation of pumping stations.

"A large part of the county's water and sewer system is over 50 years old," said Steve Walsh, chief of the county Department of Public Works' bureau of engineering and construction.

The county executive sets the rates through an executive order. In noting his rationale for the increases, Kamenetz pointed to a report by bond ratings agency Standard & Poor's that warned that funding wasn't keeping pace with needed repairs in the county and said the increase will satisfy those concerns.

Baltimore City and the county share the cost of the regional water and sewer system through the Metropolitan District, and each sets its own rates and fees.

Last year's increase was the first increase for the county since 2010. In 2013, the city passed a multiyear increase that raised rates through the current fiscal year.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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