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Baltimore ban on privatizing water system was the right thing to do | COMMENTARY

A contractor with KCI walks past a sinkhole at Pratt and Howard Streets in Baltimore following a water main break last summer.
A contractor with KCI walks past a sinkhole at Pratt and Howard Streets in Baltimore following a water main break last summer.(Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

I am the president of the the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, a historic federation of 50 churches across the Baltimore Metro area that work together to advocate in solidarity with marginalized communities. I am also one of the many advocates who worked tirelessly to pass Baltimore’s historic ban on water privatization. We supported the Ballot Question E to declare our water and sewer systems as inalienable public assets of the city and to ensure all Baltimoreans have access to clean, affordable drinking water.

The struggles of the Department of Public Works to maintain Baltimore’s aging water and sewer systems are not a symptom of public control, but the result of decades of disinvestment by the federal government and a broken billing system. Government was created to represent the people and protect our civil rights, and Baltimoreans knew better than to give up that protection. As a community, we voted overwhelmingly to make sure our water stayed in the hands of the people of Baltimore City.

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With this public control, we continue to work to ensure our communities stop falling victim to immoral water billing practices. Black Baltimoreans had been disproportionately impacted by rising water rates, water shut-offs and water tax lien sales. The passage of the Water Accountability and Equity Act has now proven our purpose. We’ve started to turn this thing from upside down to right side up, while keeping profit out of it.

The new water accountability law solves the persistent problems of unaffordable and incorrect water bills across our city. It creates a new Office of the Customer Advocate to work with customers to solve issues with incorrect bills, unreasonably high bills and related issues. The Office of the Customer Advocate’s mission is to promote fairness to customers, and it will have to report at least twice a year about its operations. A new oversight committee will review and evaluate the Advocate’s Office, provide advice and guidance and hold public hearings to allow the people of Baltimore to attend and testify about how the office is doing and what it could do better.

The water accountability law is also designed to hold public works leadership accountable and stop unjustifiable delays and overbilling. It establishes enforceable timelines for public works to respond to customers and for the Customer Advocate to address customer concerns. It is a paradigm shift from the current policy that “bills are never wrong” and the customer is always at fault to a problem-solving framework to help the customer.

At the same time, the water accountability act makes water bills permanently affordable for our most vulnerable populations with a program to adjust the water bills of Baltimore City residents at 0 to 200% of the federal poverty level down to an amount that they can actually afford to pay based on their income. This program ensures all Baltimore residents do not pay more than 3% of their household income for water service. It also provides a pathway out of water debt for low-income households who have already fallen behind on their water bills.

Banning water privatization gave us the power to enact a more moral and more just law for managing our water billing and addressing our water woes. Across the nation, water privatization has led to higher water bills, worse service and little transparency. In New York, for example, customers of private water company American Water are fighting right now for public control in the face of a 12.5% to 21% rate hike, major billing issues and water contamination.

Water is the lifeblood of our community and it is the moral responsibility of our elected officials to protect it. Giving up our system would have caused immense harm to our communities. Fortunately, people who have the right morality have stepped up to the plate. With public control over our water, we’ve stopped the immoral practice of tax sale due to unpaid water bills and paused cruel water shutoffs. We are following a path toward water justice, and we’re doing it under the power of the people.

There’s no better way to do it.

Reverend Alvin Gwynn (Alvingwynnsr@verizon.net) is president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore.

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