Beatrice Johnson's home was sold at tax sale due to an unpaid water bill. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
The Baltimore City Council is poised to approve a radical revamp of its water system that would discount billing rates based on customers’ income, provide residents with greater recourse to dispute erroneous charges, and allow renters — not just their landlords — to manage water accounts.
The Water Accountability and Equity Act, expected to get preliminary council approval Monday night, addresses years of water billing headaches and perennial water rate increases that advocates say have disproportionately harmed the city’s poorest residents. Earlier this year, state lawmakers voted to bar seizure of city homes over unpaid water bill debt and public works officials introduced a water bill discount program, but advocates and council members say more reforms are needed.
“We have to fix this system,” Democratic Council President Brandon Scott said, predicting the legislation would get final approval as soon as Nov. 4. “I think it’s a done deal now.”
The measure also has the support of Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who introduced it nearly a year ago, before Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation elevated him from the council presidency.
Community advocates say the legislation would allow the city to better serve frustrated residents, and to collect more water revenue, as well. More residents should be able to pay if they are charged affordable rates and can get help to resolve billing disputes, said Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer for Food and Water Action.
“People are dealing with these really high, erroneous bills, and there’s still no adequate process that can serve them,” she said. “People need an advocate.”
The bill addresses those problems by proposing a new office for customer advocacy and appeals within the public works department. The independent oversight could help reveal and address systemic problems affecting many city residents, Eckel said.
It would offer residents at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines income-based bill credits aimed to ensure water is affordable for all customers. The city’s current H20 Assists program, which started July 1, offers a 43% discount to any customer at or below 175% of poverty guidelines, plus an annual $236 bill credit for customers at or below 50% of the poverty line.
The bill would give residents who rent their homes access to billing data and the standing to seek discounts or to dispute bills. Property owners hold authority over water bills, and in many cases, tenants know little about how much the city is charging for their usage, said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center.
When tenants call the public works department about problems or discounts, sometimes they receive help, but other times are told that only their landlord can manage the water account, Shah said.
“The only reason that’s a problem is there’s so many landlords who don’t want to get involved,” he said. “They just want to get the money paid.”
Public works officials opposed the overhaul, saying the affordability proposal was incompatible with the department’s billing system because it would offer assistance to people who aren’t current customers of the utility and would give discounts in advance of actual water usage. They said the department was already establishing an independent dispute resolution office, and they weren’t even sure how to calculate the fiscal impact of the proposals.
And they weren’t the only city officials to raise concerns about the reforms’ cost. The city finance department said the legislation could force further water rate increases. Faced with rising maintenance and repair costs, the city has doubled rates since 2010, and they are set to rise more than 9% annually through 2021.
Dan Ellis, co-chair of Baltimore's Tax Sale Work Group, joined faith leaders and other advocates to call for the end the city's current tax sale process. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
The finance department also warned a provision reducing the interest rate on tax sales for owner-occupied homes — intended to discourage investors from buying residents’ unpaid debts and seizing their properties — could hinder the city’s ability to collect delinquent property tax bills. A spokeswoman for Scott said that proposal is expected to be removed from the legislation before it advances for final passage.
But council members say they are ready to act after years of water billing issues. For example, in 2012, the city had to refund customers $9 million after overcharging them. When the city installed high-tech water meters and launched a monthly billing system in 2016 to address such problems, mistakes continued, with hundreds of customers last year receiving erroneous bills of more than $50,000.
On Wednesday, Young’s administration said it was launching an audit of water billing after it was revealed that the city failed to collect $2.3 million in water bills from residents of the waterfront Ritz Carlton Residences over a decade.
Scott called the accountability and affordability legislation “the right thing to do,” and said it dovetails with legislation the council passed last year establishing a $15 million racial equity fund. Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the mayor is eager to sign the bill into law.
At an event Saturday kicking off Young’s campaign for a full, four-year term as mayor, Democratic Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the water legislation “radical," “progressive” and a long time coming.
“It took two years,” she said. “We got it.”
Advocates are still wary, though.
With Rudy Chow, the city’s public works director since 2014, set to retire Feb. 1, they expressed hope that the department will embrace changes it has resisted. Even if the council passes the legislation as expected, it will be up to the next mayoral administration and public works leaders to carry out its reforms.