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Baltimore City Council speeds up legislation on water billing, tenants rights as new term approaches

The Baltimore City Council approved two dozen bills on an accelerated schedule Monday, racing to close out various legislative priorities before a new administration is sworn in.

The council voted to speed up the legislative process for the bills — which included a modification of the Water Accountability and Equity Act, as well as a bill that would guarantee counsel for tenants facing eviction — by invoking a rule that allows them to advance from second reading to a final third reading on the same day.

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The water modification bill, which is co-sponsored by 12 council members, would set benchmarks for implementing the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which the council passed last year.

The sweeping act, which was designed to make changes to Baltimore’s long-dysfunctional water billing system, was to take effect in July 2020. However, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young delayed its implementation by a year, arguing the coronavirus pandemic complicated the process.

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The new law will provide discounted water rates based on a customer’s income and give residents — including tenants — more rights to dispute bills. Historically, the city has sent water bills to property owners, not tenants.

The council voted Monday evening to set several interim effective dates and new requirements for putting the act in force. For instance, the Department of Public Works would be required to publish proposed rules and regulations for a Water-for-All Discount Program, which renters can access, by April 1.

The modification would also bar the public works department from cutting off water service or charging late or restoration fees to customers enrolled in a discount program until July 1, when the Water Equity and Accountability Act is fully effective.

The department missed similar deadlines in the original law, including an April 13 requirement to release its proposed rules and regulations for implementation. Officials have argued that the act would be costly to enact, estimating it will cost $44 million in the first year and about $31 million in each subsequent year.

In October, Young announced that the city will outsource several key functions of its water billing operation — including meter reading, small meter installation and maintenance in Baltimore City and Baltimore County — to contractor Itron Inc. The move involves laying off more than 60 city employees and is expected to save about $50 million over the course of the five-year, $13 million contract.

The council is under the gun to pass pending legislation quickly while the existing membership and mayor are still in their current four-year terms. Democratic Council President Brandon Scott is due to be sworn in Dec. 8 as mayor, replacing Young, and new council members as well as new Democratic Council President Nick Mosby take office Dec. 10.

If Young does not sign the newly passed legislation into law, it will likely die. The city charter gives the mayor the span of three “actual regular meetings” to veto a bill. Only one more meeting is scheduled — on Dec. 7 — before Young’s term ends. Should the mayor deliver a late veto, there may not be time for City Council to override.

“The mayor looks forward to reviewing both bills and their amendments and deciding how to handle them before the term comes to a close,” his spokesman James Bentley said late Monday.

Among the other bills the council addressed Monday was a measure that would guarantee tenants the right to legal counsel during an eviction. The bill, co-sponsored by 10 members, calls for a legal representative to be designated “as soon as practicable” and no later than a first scheduled appearance for tenants facing eviction.

Lower-income tenants would be given highest priority. The legislation’s requirements would be phased in over a four-year span.

Housing activists lobbied the council for the legislation, citing a study funded by the Abell Foundation estimating it would save $35.6 million in housing, health, education and other spending typically undertaken by the city and state to help those who have been evicted. The foundation estimated it would cost $5.7 million to provide counsel to about 7,000 tenants.

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