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The Baltimore City Council has advanced a bill that would overhaul the troubled municipal water billing system to relieve poor residents from rising water costs and provide them more recourse if they receive bills that appear to include mistakes.
The Baltimore City Council has advanced a bill that would overhaul the troubled municipal water billing system to relieve poor residents from rising water costs and provide them more recourse if they receive bills that appear to include mistakes. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Council advanced a bill Monday night that would overhaul the troubled municipal water billing system to relieve poor residents from rising water costs and provide them more recourse if they receive bills that appear to include mistakes.

The council voted unanimously to give the bill preliminary approval.

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A final vote is expected Nov. 4 at the council’s next meeting. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who introduced the legislation in December when he was council president, has pledged to sign the bill.

The legislation would provide income-based discounts for residents at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines. The city currently offers $236 annual bill credits to the poorest residents needing assistance, and 43% discounts on water rates.

The bill also would give renters standing to seek discounts or to manage problems with accounts in their landlords’ names. And it would create an office to handle bill appeals and help customers resolve disputes with the Department of Public Works.

“This piece of legislation is about structural change,” Democratic Council President Brandon Scott said before the vote. “DPW must be accountable to its customers — Baltimore city residents.”

Democratic Council Vice President Sharon Middleton recognized community groups that have advocated for the reforms for two years, saying that without affordable water, the city denies residents “the most basic human right.”

Public works officials had opposed many elements of the legislation as recently as a September council work session, when they offered amendments that would have gutted the bill.

Middleton said she and other council members had to step in and “let them know we were serious, and we mean business.” The department did not offer any further amendments or opposition Monday. Council members say water bills are perhaps the most common concern they hear from residents.

Public Works Director Rudy Chow announced his retirement last week, effective Feb. 1.

Advocates cheered the council for supporting the legislation.

“I think they realized DPW is not going to be the one to find a solution for the problems,” said Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer for Food and Water Action. “Everyone on the council recognizes water bills are a huge problem.”

Billing problems have been reported across the city for years, with customers being overcharged by hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The city installed high-tech water meters and rolled out a new billing system in 2016, but billing errors continued.

Meanwhile, it was revealed last week that residents of the waterfront Ritz Carlton Residences were not charged for $2.3 million worth of water over a decade. Scott said that discovery made it all the more important to advance the reforms Monday.

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