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How to help with escalating water bills

Incorrect bills and rising water rates lead State Sen. Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby to plan to introduce legislation to permanently ban the city from placing liens against homes, churches and other properties over unpaid water bills.  (Luke Broadwater, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore state Sen. Mary Washington and Del. Nick Mosby want to end for good the harsh practice of placing liens against homes and churches because of unpaid water and sewer bills. They have proposed legislation that would permanently ban the process, which can send homes to a tax sale if there is at least $750 in unpaid water bills that are late by nine months or more.

The legislation is deeply needed to end once and for all the exercise of inhumanely taking away people’s homes over a few hundred dollars. An attempt last year to outlaw the practice got caught up in politics, and, ultimately, the legislature only put a moratorium on such sales for a year.

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But that doesn’t change the fact that too many people still simply can’t afford the escalating bills. Rates are going up 30 percent over the next three years, with the first increase of 9 percent slated to kick in July 1. Residents are already paying double what they did nine years ago. There’s not much way to get around that given the federal mandate to make upgrades to the city’s antiquated system and generations-long failure to invest sufficiently in water mains and sewer lines.

So how do we help those struggling to pay?

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the city’s Department of Public Works have competing proposals. The department has already pushed its plan through the Board of Public Works, but a spokesman for Mr. Young said he believes that legislation — supported by several council members and written in conjunction with community activists — would take precedence if it were to pass.

Why two proposals if the end game is the same for both sides — affordability for those hurting the most? The department and staff for Mr. Young have differing opinions on how hard the two sides have worked to meld the plans.

The department’s “Baltimore H2O Assists” 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 who qualify would get a 43 percent reduction in water and sewer rates and would not have to pay Bay Restoration and Stormwater Remediation fees. More than 40,000 households would qualify.

Mr. 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. We believe this would be best given that it is a proven method commonly used by the gas and electric companies. The department’s method, by contrast, gives the same relief to all who qualify then cuts off to nothing. Mr. Young’s plan would also cover more people; about 65,400 city households would be eligible. Philadelphia began such a plan last year.

Number crunching by advocacy group Food & Water Watch found that under the public works department proposal water bills still wouldn’t be affordable. For people living at 50 percent or below the federal poverty level, water bills would consume 7 percent of household income. The United Nations said the number should be around 3 percent.

Rudolph Chow, Director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, speaks during the department's town hall meeting about water rates increases and other issues.
Rudolph Chow, Director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, speaks during the department's town hall meeting about water rates increases and other issues. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

At a meeting with The Sun’s editorial board last month, Public Works Director Rudy Chow voiced concerns that Mr. Young’s plan would be too difficult to administer. But both require screening for income eligibility; the remaining math in the council plan could be handled with a few lines of computer code. Does the department’s objection relate to a proposed creation of a “water-customer advocacy and appeal” office that would be independent of the agency? The office would be able to take complaints from residents and hold hearings on them. Something like that is long overdue. Complaints abound about overcharging, and they haven’t all been fixed by a new billing system.

Whatever the reason for the dispute, it needs to be resolved. The council may be able to impose its solution, but ultimately, the department will have to carry it out. The need among low-income residents for help is simply too great to allow bureaucratic squabbling get in the way.

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