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Baltimore’s longtime public works director announced his retirement Thursday. Rudolph Chow, director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, speaks during a 2018 departments town hall meeting about water rate increases and other issues at New Waverly United Methodist Church.
Baltimore’s longtime public works director announced his retirement Thursday. Rudolph Chow, director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, speaks during a 2018 departments town hall meeting about water rate increases and other issues at New Waverly United Methodist Church. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s longtime public works director will leave the job early next year after a tenure spent confronting the city’s crumbling water infrastructure and failing sewer system.

Rudolph S. Chow, director of the Department of Public Works, will retire on Feb. 1, according to a statement Thursday from the office of Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

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Chow, 60, has led the agency since 2014. He pushed the city to aggressively fix the century-old infrastructure, funded year after year by water bill increases that strained some residents’ finances. The city’s spending board approved the latest in January, increasing rates by another 30 percent over three years.

Chow also updated the city’s water billing system that has been long plagued with widespread errors and he helped reach a $1.6 billion consent agreement with the federal government to overhaul the sewer system and stop wastewater from polluting the Inner Harbor by 2030.

Young commended Chow for his service to the city and his dedication to residents.

Chow was traveling Thursday and not available for comment, said Jeff Raymond, a public works spokesman.

In a 2-page resignation letter to the mayor dated Tuesday, Chow outlined the steps he took to come up with a “steady and sustainable” plan to upgrade the city’s water and sewer facilities and pipelines. He said more than 90 miles of water mains have been rehabilitated or replaced in six years and the city is on track to reach an annual goal of 15 miles a year.

“With an eye towards sound stewardship of rate and taxpayer funds, we developed among the strongest, well-balanced and innovative financial management and capital financing plans,” Chow wrote. “This approach, as a consequence, ensures a less costly and more sustainable investment in the public infrastructure that will serve future generations.”

Without the use of Environmental Protection Agency loans, state funds, bonds and other financing, Chow said the “series of painful rate hikes we have undergone would have been much higher.”

Young said he is starting a national search for a new director, whose appointment will come in the middle of a contentious 2020 mayoral election.

Chow is among the city’s highest-paid employees, according to a city database. He took home $188,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. He joined the agency in 2011 and served as head of the bureau of water and wastewater before taking over its top job.

Longtime Democratic Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of North Baltimore said she was shocked Chow would leave his post. She said he was well-regarded nationally and took a proactive approach to improving Baltimore’s antiquated water system.

“Rudy Chow has been the hardest-working and most dedicated public works director I have ever worked with, and I have known a lot and a lot of good ones,” Clarke said.

Councilman Leon Pinkett, a West Baltimore Democrat, said while Chow’s water and engineering know-how was nationally recognized, the next public works director must put more emphasis on litter control, illegal dumping and general sanitation. And, in a city with deep poverty, Pinkett said, officials must find someone to lead the agency who is more cognizant of balancing the money it takes to fix Baltimore’s crumbling water pipes and old sewer system with the need to keep water affordable for all.

Chow said in his resignation letter that the city’s sanitation needs are among its most significant problems, highest priorities and most complicated challenges. To address cleanliness, he said the agency under his direction launched a “Rat Rubout” program, gave away taxpayer-funded trash cans, placed solar-powered trash compactors around the city and expanded the street sweeping program.

Mary Grant, a continual critic of Chow’s as campaign director for advocacy group Food & Water Action, said the city must do better going forward. She condemned Chow for pushing changes to pending legislation that would create a water billing system. The new system would create tiered billing tied to income. The council should reject the changes he wants, she said.

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“We are hopeful that under new leadership, the Department of Public Works will become more responsive to the needs of the people of Baltimore,” Grant said in a statement. “Under Chow’s direction, the department has obstructed the honest work of water advocates in Baltimore who are simply trying to improve the water billing system. We urge future leadership to recommit to water for all.”

Chow this year was named one of the top 10 industry leaders by the American Public Works Association. While in Baltimore, he also launched a program, YH20, to train young people for careers in the water industry.

“Please know I will leave city service proud of the Department of Public Works and all we have been able to accomplish,” Chow wrote in his letter to Young.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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