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No accountability for Baltimore Public Works

Beatrice Johnson's home was sold at tax sale due to an unpaid water bill. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore is in urgent need of accountability, not just from the mayor’s office, but from all city agencies. This includes ensuring transparency and equity in the delivery of essential city services. Water is one resource that the city is obligated to provide for the health and safety of its residents, yet the Department of Public Works has functioned without accountability for far too long. For years, thousands of residents have received incorrect bills that they have no way to dispute, and water bills are unaffordable for more than a third of households in the city. Access to water is a basic human right, and we have a responsibility as a city to do better. The good news is: We can.

With the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh, Baltimore has a unique opportunity to pass Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s Water Accountability and Equity Act. This legislation would establish a robust water affordability program and create an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to investigate and resolve incorrect water bills. Given the lack of transparency and accountability within the Department of Public Works, residents need an independent way to resolve billing disputes. Mayor Young’s act provides an equitable path to affordable water for all residents, not just homeowners. DPW’s proposed solution, the “Baltimore H2O Assists” program, would serve far fewer residents. It does not provide a dispute resolution process, excludes renters and still leaves water unaffordable for many Baltimoreans.

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Water rates have skyrocketed in the last decade: Bills have doubled since 2012, and the city’s Board of Estimates recently approved an additional 30 percent increase over the next three years. These hikes have made water bills unaffordable for Baltimore’s low-income residents. In fact, some Baltimore City residents are being billed up to 10 percent of their income. According to utilities expert Roger Colton, raising water bills to unaffordable rates is also counterproductive: if residents cannot afford their water bill, they will not pay the bill, which leaves DPW with less revenue overall.

It is critical that Baltimore City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act without any weakening amendments. Based on Philadelphia’s income-based water billing system implemented in 2017, this legislation would provide a sliding-scale for water affordability assistance based on income. Under the proposed system, residents whose income is 50 percent below the poverty line would pay 1 percent of their income, and those up to double the poverty line would pay 3 percent.

In addition to water affordability, the proposed Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals would provide Baltimore residents with a formal billing dispute resolution process. This is an essential part of water accountability: last February, DPW issued more than 500 incorrect bills; many of them were over $50,000 for one month. Yet, there is no clear process for Baltimore city and county residents to dispute these incorrect water bills. Even City Councilman Zeke Cohen has received an incorrect water bill and had trouble resolving the issue. DPW has not proposed any solution to deal with inaccurate billing or the lack of a formal dispute resolution process, while the mayor’s bill would create an office of customer advocacy.

Earlier this year, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution supporting the statewide Water Taxpayer Protection Act, which was signed into law by the governor a few weeks ago. This new law will protect against the unjust practice of selling homes and houses of worship at tax sale for unpaid water bills.

Sen. Mary Washington, who sponsored the state-wide bill, testified in strong support of the Water Accountability and Equity Act at a hearing before the council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee earlier this month, expressing the urgent need for accountability within DPW and equitable access to water in Baltimore City. With a packed hearing room, residents, consumer advocates, city agency representatives, lawyers, community groups and City Council members echoed these calls for a transformation in the way DPW functions. This included testimony from Council President Brandon Scott, who emphasized his intentions to see that this legislation is passed.

We hope the committee members reviewing the bill feel the same and pass it in its strongest form.

Natasha Robinson-Link (nlink1@umbc.edu) and Matan Zeimer (mzeimer@gmail.com) are members of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) and its Jeremiah Fellowship, a year long program which gives Jews interested in racial, economic and social justice the opportunity to explore their Jewish values and gain leadership and advocacy skills. JUFJ is a member of the Right to Water Coalition.

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