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A 'more just water system' in Baltimore

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Last month, Baltimore voters overwhelmingly approved my charter amendment to ban privatizing our water and sewer systems and to declare them as permanently public assets of the city. In passing Question E on the ballot, we became the first major city in the country to prevent profiteering corporations from taking over our water. We did this because in Baltimore we know water is a necessity and a vital human right.

With this momentous victory, the public has entrusted me and my fellow public officials with providing the leadership and stewardship to solve the water problems currently confronting our city. I seek to honor that duty by offering a comprehensive water package: the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which was introduced in the Baltimore City Council on Dec. 3.

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We broke ground to elevate Baltimore as a model for the country by banning water privatization, and with the introduction of the Water Accountability and Equity Act, we are taking the crucial next step toward realizing a more just water system. Now the real work begins to ensure our water system works for everyone in Baltimore.

Unaffordable water bills, incorrect water bills and tax sales over those bills are far too prevalent. The current system isn’t working for anyone, regardless of income. Requests for help with water bills are consistently one of the top reasons that constituents reach out to us on the City Council for assistance. We recognize that the Department of Public Works (DPW) is trying to get it right, but I cannot sit idly by while water bills cause such grievance across our city.

These problems have to stop, and they have to stop now. The public has demanded a solution, and that is why I have introduced a groundbreaking piece of legislation that received unanimous support from my colleagues on the City Council. Once passed, it will once again place Baltimore as a national leader on water justice.

The Water Accountability and Equity Act will do two things: ensure that low-income families can have access to affordable water and provide everyone in Baltimore access to an independent, responsive investigation of water billing disputes.

My ordinance will set up a Water-for-All Discount Program to ensure that water bills are affordable for low-income households in our city. The United Nations has indicated that for water service to be affordable, charges should not exceed 3 percent of a household’s income. Right now, according to this international standard, water service is unaffordable for more than one-third of Baltimore homes, and some families are facing bills that would devour 8 percent or more of their income.

My ordinance would provide credits to effectively cap water bills at no more than three percent of household income for households living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, the DPW offers a one-time $236 credit for families living under 175 percent of the Federal Poverty Line who are already behind on their bills. My bill greatly expands that existing program, proactively prevents families from falling into water debt and ensures that the assistance we provide matches the need of the household.

Providing affordable bills for low-income residents isn’t only the ethical approach, it is the fiscally responsible approach. Our city cannot keep raising rates on households who cannot afford to pay those bills. As of January, the DPW had around $31 million in outstanding water bills — this amount has only increased as rates have gone up. Why should our system operate like that? If we can make water bills affordable for more people in our city, that number would certainly decrease. When people can afford their bills, they pay them.

My ordinance will also create the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy to investigate and resolve water billing problems and represent the interests of the public before the DPW. The Customer Advocate will thoroughly investigate water billing problems and disputes with a focus on problem-solving — not finger-pointing. Water customers will have access to in-person meetings, dedicated follow-up and a clear legal process with set timelines. The Customer Advocate will enhance the accountability, transparency and reliability of our water billing system.

Baltimore deserves water service that is affordable and accountable for all our residents. Join me in supporting the Water Accountability and Equity Act as we take another step toward water justice for all.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young is president of the Baltimore City Council. His email is councilpresident@baltimorecity.gov.

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