Baltimore city residents will have to start setting aside extra cash every month to pay their water bills. On Monday, a 10 percent water bill increase went into effect, the first in a three-year series that will raise bills 30 percent.
The increase was announced by the Department of Public Works last year. The Board of Estimates approved it in January. Revenue from the rate increase will go toward badly needed improvements throughout the city’s aging water and sewer system. DPW has said the first hike will add about $8 a month to a typical bill for a family of three.
“This rate increase is set to price even more families out of being able to afford water,” said Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food & Water Watch.
The United Nations says water bills should be no more than 3 percent of a family's household income. But Eckel says because of the increase, “more than 40 percent of families in our city will be billed more than this amount.”
Baltimore’s water bills are rising faster than the national average — and have already doubled since 2012.
The people who will bear the brunt of this hike are the city’s black residents, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The LDF published a study earlier this month that found the majority of Baltimoreans affected by rising water bills are disproportionately black.
“It’s quite staggering to think about how many families are really affected by this,” Coty Montag, the senior deputy director of litigation for LDF, told WYPR earlier this month. “In some neighborhoods, families must spend up to 8 percent of their incomes on water services.”
But then, city residents won’t actually see that 10 percent increase on their water bills until the city’s digital services are back online. A ransomware attack May 7 halted digital services, and residents haven’t seen a water bill since then.
Until service is restored, residents can either make an estimated monthly payment at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building or set money aside to pay the outstanding months of bills once the systems are online again.
“With this rate increase, those bills that won't get sent out [until] the ransomware attacks are resolved will be even larger than many families can expect or even prepare for,” Eckel said.
The bill hike coincides with DPW’s new water affordability program, called Baltimore H2O Assists. The program is intended to lower water bills for residents whose income is at or below 175% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
The program will drive down “a ‘typical’ bill for a family of three from about $98 per month to about $61 per month,” according to a DPW news release. “An additional credit – called BH2O Plus, for households at or below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines – will cut the bill by another $21 per month.”
The DPW news release called the program “a sound and generous way of addressing the genuine concerns over water bill affordability.” Earlier this month, DPW said that a family of three enrolled in the BH2O Assists program will pay just 1.6 percent of the median household income toward water.
BH2O Assists will replace the city’s Senior Discount and Hardship programs, and will also expand water bill assistance eligibility to more households, according to DPW. Residents already enrolled in the Senior Citizen or Hardship programs will be automatically enrolled in BH2O Assists.
DPW’s website says applications for the program are available at the Abel Wolman Building. When WYPR visited DPW’s office Monday morning seeking an application, none were readily available. A DPW spokesperson later emailed a digital copy of the application, which asks for a service address and water bill account number.
Those who visited the DPW customer service office seeking to sign up for the program on Monday morning and left without an application will receive them in the mail, said Sylvia Fulwood-Paylor, a DPW ombudsman supervisor.
Residents can also call DPW and request a mailed application.
The rate hike also comes as the Baltimore City Council considers the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which would add another discount program to supplement DPW’s other affordability programs, like BH2O Assist. The bill would also bolster customer service by creating an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to investigate and resolve incorrect water bills and a Committee for Office Oversight.
The bill, introduced last December, is sitting in the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee. Its first work session is scheduled for July 25th.