The latest independent investigation of Baltimore’s water and sewage systems found exactly what anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention would expect: a costly, dysfunctional mess. And Monday’s big news conference featuring fledgling Mayor Brandon Scott promising big changes — with some timely backup from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. — was about what you would expect as well. They are angry. They are frustrated. And they know people living in the city and county surely are, too. That’s what a long history of disrepair, bad billing, hefty rate increases and faulty meters will do for you.
Baltimore mayors call the shots when it comes to water and sewer service. That’s how the system is currently set up. So much blame for the mismanagement rightly falls to mayors past. And here we must also acknowledge that Baltimore’s underground infrastructure has long been in a sad state of repair. A lot of cities have this problem. Government at every level, city, state and federal, has not invested enough in updating urban public works systems. Take, for example, a lot of (admittedly necessary) environmental mandates that Washington was happy to impose on urban centers like Baltimore the last quarter-century but not to help pay for. Still, there’s a difference between a competently run system with aging underground pipes and an incompetently run system with aging underground pipes. Baltimore has the latter.
And were there any doubts about that prior to this week’s report from the city and county inspector generals? There are no fewer than 8,000 outstanding service “tickets,” meaning problems with accounts that have yet to be resolved. Eight thousand! If Baltimore Gas & Electric has this level of backlog, the Maryland Public Service Commission would be issuing back-breaking fines. And, by the way, ratepayers have been on the hook for much of the $133 million over the last 10 years spent to fix many of these problems. Well, at least those who were properly billed have been. Let’s not forget that certain users haven’t gotten billed at all. The Ritz-Carlton Residences, for instance. How nice that the folks who can afford million-dollar condos with five-star amenities have been spared $2.3 million in water bills since 2007.
Here’s the best that can be said about the Scott-Olszewski response: We have not seen this level of city-county cooperation in the past. For decades, mayors have mostly left running the system in the hands of Department of Public Works bureaucrats and refused offers to create a more regional model for management and billing (or privatization, but that’s another matter). Why? Chiefly because mayors rightly worried that if they lost control of the system, city residents would somehow get shortchanged. Running the water and sewer system gave mayors some leverage. But those days are coming to a close. Patience is wearing thin. And, by the way, city residents are already getting shortchanged by a billing system that appears to have under-billed the county, as the inspectors general note.
It’s therefore a good thing that Mayor Scott is willing to explore all options, including divestment. So is County Executive Olszewski. We strongly suspect that is the inevitable result. The current model just isn’t working. And we are even happy to hear that other elected officials in the city have concerns about the current state of affairs as well. If the water systems problems might be described as a steady drip-drip-drip of neglect and ineptitude in years past, it’s more like a broken water main geyser now. Big changes are going to require big actions.
A teaspoon or so of patience is in order, of course. Mayor Scott has been in office all of two weeks. There is still a consultant to be heard from. Still, a concrete plan of action to devise, one that protects city and county ratepayers alike while positioning the system to modernize and become functional. So let’s set a date. New presidents are often judged on their first hundred days; let’s give Mayor Scott until his 37th birthday on April 8 to implement a plan. As it happens, that’s also four days before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its 2021 legislative session, so if state action is needed, the timing is apt. This has been going on for far too long to accept mere words and promises from anyone involved.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.