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Advocates: Here are 5 things to know about your Baltimore water bill

Officials confirmed Tuesday the city had fallen victim to hackers demanding payment to unlock encrypted files. (Ian Duncan/Baltimore Sun video)

The May ransomware attack seized Baltimore City’s ability to function. The Department of Public Works (DPW) is finally issuing some backlogged water bills this week, and the rest later this month. DPW says the meters have been collecting accurate usage data, and the bills sent out in August will reflect usage for the past three to four months. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Your water bill will be big.

The average water bill in Baltimore is $100 per month, so these bills could be four times that, reaching $400 or more. Rates also went up another 10% on July 1st, so for July and August, the charges will be even higher than before. For a typical household, this bill will be about 10% of monthly gross income.

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Baltimoreans have expressed concern about how to prepare for these massive bills. The city has done nothing to ease these concerns, save sending a postcard to water customers this past week warning them. But people can apply for DPW’s new BH2O Assist program, which could lower their bills if their income is at or below 175% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (apply in person at 200 Holiday St, or by calling DPW at 410-396-5398 to request that an application be mailed to your home).

2. You can set up a payment plan.

Once the water bills go out, customers will need to pay in full or establish a payment plan with DPW. If you can’t pay the bill immediately and don’t enter into a payment plan, DPW will charge late fees starting in November. The department will announce when late fees will take effect, but it’s best to make arrangements as soon as possible to avoid penalties.

The department is preparing staff to handle increased requests for payment plans, which can be arranged in person at DPW or any of the five Community Action Centers, or by calling DPW. The regular hours for all of these offices are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., weekdays. The DPW office is extending their hours temporarily from 7 a.m. to 7p.m. to sort out these large bills.

3. Your water will not be shut off anytime soon.

After growing grassroots pressure, the city in 2017 placed an indefinite moratorium on residential water shutoffs. There are no plans to resume shutoffs. We urge Director Rudy Chow to maintain this policy for at least another year.

4. Your home should not be sent to tax sale because of your water bill.

Thanks to the work of Sen. Mary Washington and Del. Nick Mosby, the city is no longer able to use outstanding water bills to send residential homes or places of worship to tax sale.

5. The city still needs a real solution for incorrect and unaffordable bills.

If you believe your bill is incorrect, that’s a different story. There is still no adequate dispute resolution process in place, even with DPW’s recently announced appeals process. Still, the best first steps are to contact DPW and your City Council member, who can send your request to the DPW’s escalation team. Until the situation is resolved, keep in mind that entering into a payment plan could make you liable for paying the full amount. You also may accrue interest and late fees on the bill while disputing it.

DPW’s mailer did not explain adequately the options that residents have for payment or what this process will look like. Once these bills go out, chaos could ensue. Baltimoreans deserve better.

It’s time to ensure DPW is serving our city’s needs. The Water Accountability and Equity Act, introduced by Mayor Young in December, would create an independent and accountable dispute resolution process, comprehensive affordability measures, and a pathway out of insurmountable water debt for low-income families. The City Council must pass this legislation immediately so benefits apply to customers who will struggle to pay ransomware water bills.

Rianna Eckel (reckel@fwwatch.org), is the senior Maryland organizer with Food & Water Watch. Margaret Henn (mhenn@probonomd.org) is the director of the Home Preservation Project with Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. Ellyn Riedl (eriedl@mvlslaw.org) is a staff attorney with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. All are members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition.

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