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Water bill woes dampen holiday spirits

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Baltimore residents are being hit with skyrocketing water bills and many of them are heading to the Department of Public Works’ customer service office looking for some relief.

There was 81-year-old, Mary Duckett, who walked out of the customer service office glaring at her $385 water bill for the last three month.

“I need to pay at least $100 of this bill today," she said. "At least $100."

She stared down the hall towards the rat maze of city hall bureaucracy.

Duckett, who lives in a small house on Belleville Avenue, says her bill used to be $100 for three months. But even with her senior discount, she is struggling to pay this and buy Christmas presents for her grandkids.

“I can’t buy them. No way!" Duckett says. "It is a lot for the holidays and also I can’t afford it.”

And she’s not the only one worried about her water bill. Curtis Witherspoon, Sr., and his wife just moved into their house on Walther Avenue in Northwest Baltimore three months ago.

“For the last three months, the first bill of like $95 the second one dropped down to like $30, the third bill was like $75," her says. "So that fluctuation kind of concerns me.”

Witherspoon says something must be wrong with the billing system that is causing his bill to fluctuate so much.

“I lived in Baltimore County and for a three to four-month period your water bill maybe $30 to $40."

A study released last month for Food and Water Watch of Maryland says that between 2010 and 2016 the principal and interest paid by water customers each year increased by 86 percent while sewer fees increased by approximately 54 percent.

“Everyone needs to understand. Every rate increases that we do on an annual basis, I would say 90 percent plus of those increases are solely for the purpose of reinvesting our capital program," said DPW's Director Rudolph Chow.

Chow says a number of factors play into the wildly fluctuating water bills. There’s the lack of reinvestment in the water system, federal requirement to upgrade the city’s ancient sewer system, and a lack of federal money.

He says inherited the water system issues because back in 2007 the rate for water was artificially low and the money was not reinvested to repair the system.

"They put a new meter and sewage line in my street," Duckett says. "So now they are going to charge me for that.”

Duckett and other customers say they understand their bills going up with the urgent need to replace the infrastructure. But many customers fear they’ll lose their homes if they can’t pay their bills.

Mayor Catherine Pugh says that won’t happen. She said yesterday she has ordered a halt to tax sales of owner-occupied houses because of unpaid water bills.

"Your house can’t be taken for a water bill lean only," says Pugh.

Pugh says the expensive repairs will make things better in the long run.

“What we’re doing is called a long-term fix so that when we fix these pipes we don’t have to come back and do this over and over again," says Pugh.

A 2012 audit of the city’s water billing system found that one out of every ten bills was inaccurate and DPW reimbursed customers a total of $9 million. The billing system was automate last October and has not been inspected since.

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