Legislation that will overhaul Baltimore’s water system — discounting rates based on customers’ income and giving residents an easier way to dispute erroneous bills — is heading to the mayor’s desk for a signature.
The Baltimore City Council gave final approval Monday night to the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a long-awaited move that advocates say represents a necessary transformation of a dysfunctional system.
The measure is supported by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who introduced it nearly a year ago, before Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation elevated him from the council presidency.
“I am looking forward to signing this historic piece of water justice legislation,” Young said in a statement.
Under the bill, people living in poverty will be eligible for income-based bill credits aimed at ensuring water is affordable for all customers.
“Clean, affordable water is a human right,” Councilman Leon Pinkett said. “That’s what we’re about.”
The bill also creates a new office for customer advocacy and appeals within the city’s Department of Public Works. Residents will be able to appeal billing disputes and assistance denials to the office, bringing increased oversight to the troubled system. People who rent their homes also will gain easier access to billing data.
When the bill passed, the advocates packed into the council chambers burst into applause.
Plastic bag ban
The council also gave final approval to legislation banning retailers’ use of plastic bags. Young has expressed support for the bill in the past, but said he wants to see the final version before deciding whether to sign it.
The bill forbids retailers from giving out plastic bags, and requires them to charge a nickel for any other bag they supply to shoppers, such as a paper bag. It applies to grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, restaurants and gas stations, although some types of products would be exempt.
Retailers would keep 4 cents from the fee for each alternative bag they supply, with a penny going back to the city.
Maryland Policy & Politics
The legislation would go into effect in late 2020, a year after the mayor signs it or allows it to become law without his signature.
City Councilwoman Danielle McCray cast the lone vote against the ban, calling the 5-cent fee an “unnecessary and regressive tax.”
Proponents of the bill say its an important step toward eliminating a ubiquitous form of litter.
Councilman Bill Henry called Monday’s vote a victory, especially considering the council has tried nine times since 2006 to ban plastic bags. He said he’s looking forward to getting started on a Baltimore “that is truly beyond plastic.”
Fair Election Fund
The council also moved forward on establishing a public campaign financing fund aimed at limiting big money’s influence in Baltimore politics.
The Fair Election Fund would provide matching funds to qualified candidates for mayor, city council and comptroller who pledged to refuse to accept contributions from corporations and PACS. Candidates tapping the fund also must forgo contributions larger than $150.
The fund is expected to cost the city $2 million to $2.5 million a year, according to city documents. Proponents hope it levels the playing field in city elections.