The Baltimore City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development committee approved on Thursday a measure that would create several programs and offices to make low income residents’ water bills more affordable.
The committee passed the Water Accountability & Equity Act without of the 14 pages of amendments that Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow submitted less than a half hour before the meeting, which was supposed to be the last committee work session on the bill.
“We just got these amendments this morning,” said Hilary Ruley, an attorney with the city law department, at the hearing. “There’s no way to know if they are legal."
The WAEA would also create an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals and a Committee for Office Oversight and give renters access to dispute resolutions. Renters, who make up 53 percent of Baltimore households, currently rely on landlords to dispute water bills.
Chow has argued that the bill would force his department to raise rates for non-low income customers to make up for proposed discount programs.
Councilwoman Sharon Middleton scheduled the bill to appear before the full council, all of whom have signed on as sponsors, at its Oct. 28 meeting. If passed, it will head to Mayor Jack Young’s desk to be signed into law. Young was one of the co-sponsors when he was council president.
Middleton admonished the DPW for submitting the amendments so late in the legislative process.
“It's just interesting how we have to keep reminding city agencies that they also are there to serve the consumers and residents of our city,” Middleton said. “I'm hoping today's events will strike a chord where [DPW] can really take this whole act seriously. The goal is to try to get this passed as soon as possible… residents can’t wait any longer.”
Middleton said the DPW will have to work with the law and financial city departments as well as water justice advocates to get their amendments approved before the Oct. 28 city council meeting.
“We were told in late February of this year that DPW was working on amendments to the legislation,” said Rianna Eckel, a Maryland state organizer for Food & Water Watch. “Now, seven months later, we have still been unable to get the department to give us even a single sentence of feedback to make the legislation workable for them beyond, ‘it’s not possible.’ ”
Eckel said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the bill moving out of committee and heading to the council will force DPW to take the legislation more seriously.
Baltimore’s water bills are already rising faster than the national average. From 2010 to 2018, the city’s water bills grew by 127 percent. Residents saw a 10 percent increase in their water bills over the summer. Bills are slated for two more 10 percent increases over the next two years. DPW has argued that the increases are badly needed to help fund improvements throughout the city’s aging water and sewer system.
The WAEA would hinder those needed improvements by cutting down on revenue, Chow said before the committee on Thursday. He argued that any revenue from water bills goes toward investments in the city’s water systems. Citing the water disruptions at the Poe Homes this summer, Chow said DPW can no longer put off treating its poor infrastructure.
“Not investing in our infrastructure is not the answer,” Chow said on Thursday. “Our infrastructure is crumbling.”
He also said that DPW’s existing current financial assistance program, H2O Assists, provides relief for low-income Baltimoreans. It gives a 43 percent water and sewage bill discount to households whose income is at or below 175 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Another program, H2O+, provides households whose income is at or below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Level with a $236 yearly credit.
According to a financial analysis from City Council President Brandon Scott’s office, the WAEA’s discount program would save $19 million over the next five years compared to the H2O Assist program.
That’s because the WAEA offers tiered assistance as opposed to an across-the-board discount, Eckel said.
The WAEA ensures that “everyone's needs are met and people are paying as much into the system as they can reasonably so that we're raising enough money to do the infrastructure upgrades that we need,” Eckel said.
A report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund published this summer found that Baltimore residents who face the most severe impacts of increasing water bills are disproportionately black. In some neighborhoods, families spend up to eight percent of their household income on water bills.
It found that 65 percent of Baltimore’s black population live in neighborhoods where families spend more than 2 percent of their incomes on water bills. The United Nations, which considers water access a human right, says water costs shouldn’t exceed 3 percent of a household income.
Coty Montag, an attorney at the defense fund’s Thurgood Marshall Institute, told WYPR in July that the LDF fully supports the WAEA.
However, she said, the bill “may not provide relief in terms of billing discounts or decreases for every day, average families, who may be struggling to pay their water bills, also.”