Baltimore residents would face water and stormwater rate increases of 3% and a sewer rate increase of 3.5% each of the next three years under a plan introduced by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration Wednesday.
The rate hikes, which still must be approved by the city’s Board of Estimates, will be the subject of a hearing during the board’s June 15 meeting.
Matthew Garbark, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, said improvements to the city’s water billing system have increased revenue enough that a lower rate increase can be proposed. Baltimore residents have faced water and sewer rate increases of more than 9% every year since 2016.
Aaron Moore, the department’s chief fiscal officer, noted the newly proposed rate increases are the lowest since 1998, and are below the U.S. inflation rate of 8%.
Council President Nick Mosby, chairman of the Board of Estimates, asked when a rate increase will no longer be needed.
“We know this is the lowest since 1998, but we also know our residents are going to be faced with inflation that’s going to be passed on to them,” Mosby said.
Moore said future rates will depend on DPW’s ongoing effort to improve the city’s long troubled system of water billing and meter repairs.
“We will not be returning to the high increases of the past,” Moore said. “That I can say.”
Garbark said the city has been focused on improving the operation of the city’s water meters and its billing process. Baltimore manages a water meter system that includes 200,000 meters in the city and another 200,000 meters in Baltimore County.
In 2013, the city purchased a new system of electronic transmitters that could be attached to meters and send usage rates directly to the city. In the county, readings are not sent directly. Instead, employees of the city’s meter shop drive through neighborhoods to collect the readings via a wireless computer system.
After the March 2020 start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an enormous backlog of work orders arose as meter shop employees tasked with maintaining the meters were sent home with pay. A joint report by the Baltimore City and Baltimore County inspectors general in December 2020 found 8,650 open repair requests for water meter problems in the county alone — 95% of them unresolved for more than a year.
An additional 14,000 meters in the city were malfunctioning at the time, for a total of more than 22,000 broken meters. Many were providing readings of zero water consumption, the inspectors general said.
As of May 2021, the backlog of work orders stood at 7,600, Garbark told members of the Board of Estimates on Wednesday. That backlog has since been reduced to 800, he said.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Garbark said the city also has been working to repair large commercial meters that were not connected to the city reading system or not sending proper readings to the city. The large meters are more labor intensive to fix, but generate more revenue for the city. Garbark said after the meeting that more than 1,000 of those have been addressed.
“Year over year, we’re looking at significant high single-digit [percentage revenue] increases, particularly from large meters and commercial meters that are bringing revenue into the system,” Moore said.
Scott asked why so many bills have gone uncollected.
“A lot of these disputes have languished for a long time. They get to a level of complexity where all communications have broken down and it reaches a stalemate,” Garbark said. “There’s been no impetus until now to drive a solution.”
Garbark said getting large accounts reconnected requires a lot of coordination, sometimes shutting down plants or large commercial areas to access the system. Getting those accounts back online has returned “tremendous amounts of revenue,” he said.
Mosby questioned whether fees for past water use could be recouped from such customers.
Garbark said most often the meters are working properly, but the readings are not being sent to the city’s collection system. In those cases, past readings are available from the meters and can be charged based upon past rates.