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We represent parts of the city where residents are afraid of the rain. And why wouldn’t they be? Because of our aging infrastructure, certain neighborhoods like Cherry Hill, Beechfield, Violetville, Forest Park and others hold their breath during heavy rains, waiting to see if this storm will lead to another round of flooding and basement sewage backups. During heavy rain, overflows of sewage emerge from drain pipes, flooding basements and causing thousands of dollars of damage to some of the most expensive appliances most homeowners have in their homes, such as their heating units, washers and dryers.

The good news is that there is a reimbursement program for Baltimore City residents affected by sewage backups. The reimbursement program was mandated by state and federal regulators and is operated by the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW). It should be an example of good governance, a positive step in the right direction at a time when mistrust of City Hall is high. We should be at a place where even though rain storms occur and basements are flooded, residents feel that their government will help them get through it.

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Our offices were concerned to learn of multiple issues with the Expedited Reimbursement Program, starting with the fact that no one in Baltimore City seems to know about it. According to Blue Water Baltimore, the Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Water Action — who have analyzed data from DPW’s own reports — there were 4,632 reported building cackups in the almost year-long period from April 6, 2018 (when the program began) through March 2019. And yet, during this same time frame, the city processed only 74 applications for the Expedited Reimbursement Program, accounting for only 1.6% of the backups. This fact, when coupled with the fact that $2 million dollars are set aside per year for this reimbursement program and Baltimore City has only paid $14,775 in reimbursement costs, is deeply troubling.

The failure of Baltimore City Public Works to promote its own reimbursement program is problematic; however, a deeper analysis shows that the system as currently designed, seems to place a number of roadblocks in the way of those few individuals who do participate in the program. First, residents can only apply for up to $2,500 in reimbursement costs, when damage caused by sewage backups can easily surpass $10,000. Second, to qualify for the Expedited Reimbursement Program, residents need to report the sewage backup within 24 hours to 311, and they must submit an application for the reimbursement program within 90 days. According to DPW’s most recent report on the program, 34% of claims were denied in 2018 and 2019 for failure to comply with one of these rules.

Furthermore, even if someone does know about the program and successfully complete the application, the building backup cannot be related to a blockage in “publicly owned portions of the collection system”. Meaning that if there is a tree root, grease build-up, “flushable” wipes (which aren’t really flushable), or other blockage in pipes over which you have no control but are close enough to affect your home, unfortunately this program denies your request — an experience 43% of claimants are all too familiar with.

As councilmembers representing areas where repeat basement backups have affected dozens of homeowners that we know about, and thousands more across the city, we will be holding a hearing on Nov. 13th at 5 p.m. in City Hall to demand answers from the Department of Public Works about why so few residents know about a reimbursement program that ostensibly should be helping people, yet by accident or design, is failing to do so.

We also plan to start exploring steps beyond reimbursement that other cities like Cincinnati, Ohio, have taken to help their residents cope with the stress and financial burden of sewage backups. In doing so, we hope to draw attention to important programs that can defray some of the anxiety that comes from rain storms and sewage backups, at a time when climate change will only increase the number of heavy rain events, and thousands more will be affected by this issue.

Kristerfer Burnett (Kristerfer.Burnett@baltimorecity.gov) and Edward Reisinger (Edward.Reisinger@baltimorecity.gov) are members of the Baltimore City Council.

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