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City Council Passes Bill To Create Tiered Water Bill Assistance, Establish DPW Advocacy Office

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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  The Baltimore City Council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act Monday, paving the way for water bill discount programs and Department of Public Works oversight measures.

The passage caps off a year-long effort by the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition to create an income-based water billing system in Baltimore, a city where water bills grew by 127 percent from 2010 to 2018, outpacing the national average.

The coalition, including Food and Water Action, Jews United for Justice, Public Justice Center and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, celebrated their victory ahead of Monday’s meeting outside City Hall, alongside City Council President Brandon Scott, City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed. 

"By passsing this bill, Baltimore is showing the country that we can hold our public utilities accountable and extinguish the growing water affordabillity crisis across the nation," Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Action said. 

“This legislation brings needed transparency and stronger accountability mechanisms to the Department of Public Works, while also protecting our most vulnerable residents,” said Council President Scott. “Now, the Council and I will hold DPW accountable through legislative oversight and fight to make sure water rates are fair for all of our residents, regardless of income or neighborhood.”

Mayor Jack Young, a Democrat who introduced the bill over a year ago, said he is looking forward to signing the bill in the coming weeks.

The bill establishes a system of tiered discounts, based on income. Residents who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible to receive assistance. The federal poverty level for a family of four is currently an income of $25,750 a year.  

An analysis by Scott’s office found that under the WAEA’s discount program, a family of three with a $9,000 a year income would see their water bill capped at 1 percent of that income. Under DPW’s existing discount programs, that family’s bill would be more than 2 percent. 

The United Nations, which considers water access a human right, says water costs should not exceed 3 percent of a household income.  

A July report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that water bills exceeding 2 percent of household income are most often paid by black families. 

“In 2019, water bills in Baltimore will exceed two percent of Black median income in 118 of the city’s 200 census tracts,” the study said. “Sixty-five percent of the Black population in Baltimore lives in these tracts. In five tracts, four of which are majority-Black, water will cost six to eight percent of Black median income.”

The bill will also establish an Office of the Customer Advocate, which will assist customers with appeals and water discount program denials, and a Committee for Office Oversight. The former office will investigate why water billing has been so problematic, from charging households too much to charging large businesses too little.  

The WAEA will also give renters access to dispute resolutions. Renters, who make up 53 percent of Baltimore households, currently rely on landlords to dispute water bills -- so if a tenant’s landlord is unwilling to vouch for them to DPW about a bill, they are unable to dispute it.

"Renters and homeowners alike will have transparency, due process, and affordability," said Zafar Shah, an attorney at Public Justice Center.

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