Activists Decry Mayor Young's Delay Of Baltimore Water Bill Relief Law
Low income Baltimoreans did not receive a promised water bill discount due to go into effect last month after Mayor Jack Young delayed the implementation of the Water Accountability and Affordability Act, citing the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the Department of Public Works’ inability to meet the law’s deadline.
Activists say his actions are tantamount to kicking the can of water affordability down the road to Baltimore’s next mayor; Young lost the key mayoral Democratic primary to City Council President Brandon Scott in June. In deep-blue Baltimore, winning the Democratic primary is as good as winning the election.
“We had been advising renters facing unaffordable water bills and even eviction that a solution was on the horizon,” Zafar Shah, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center, said. “July 13th was the date we kept telling our clients that there is going to be help on its way and you're not going to have problems getting a payment plan or a discount. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
The law, which Young signed in January after he introduced it as City Council President years earlier, aims to address the city’s long-dysfunctional water billing system by creating a tiered system for low-income residents, instead of giving an across-the-board discount through a current city program, H2O Assist.
It would also give renters access to dispute bills. Renters, who make up 53 percent of Baltimore households and are predominately Black, currently rely on landlords to dispute water bills, a practice that Shah says leads to evictions and widens disparities.
In a July 9 executive order, Young suspended the implementation of the WAEA until July of next year, citing the Governor's state of emergency to grant the city legal authority to be out of compliance with the law’s scheduled start date. He also introduced legislation before the City Council to delay the implementation once the state of emergency is lifted.
In a statement, Young’s spokesman James Bentley said the administration has worked diligently to implement the WAEA.
“While DPW is making good progress, additional time is necessary to properly implement the bill,” Bentley said.
DPW communications chief Yolanda Winkler referred WYPR to a letter the Mayor sent to the City Council in June, which cited financial concerns from Baltimore County -- which shares water infrastructure with the city -- and the drop in city revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The cost of the implementation as well as the lost revenue, which has been reported, raised questions about the cost-sharing approach to funding necessary infrastructure,” Young’s letter said.
Since before the pandemic, DPW officials have argued that they can’t afford the WAEA’s discount program because of badly-needed improvements to aging infrastructure and that the H2O Assist program already provides assistance from customers.
According to a 2019 financial analysis from City Council President Brandon Scott’s office, the WAEA’s discount program would save Baltimore $19 million over the next five years compared to the current H2O Assist program.
“The focus of affordability conversation should be, are people getting bills that they can afford to pay,” said Rianna Eckel, a senior organizer with Food and Water Action. “If the answer is no, then people aren't going to pay their bills.”
The WAEA meets the needs of Baltimoreans by keeping their water bills stable, Eckel said.
They wouldn't rise as water rates continue to rise, but they would be fixed until that family'sincome rises.
“Because you're keeping bills affordable, people are actually much more likely to pay them,” she said.
Molly Amster, the director of Jews United for Justice’s Baltimore chapter, said the delay has arrived at the worst possible time in recent memory for low-income Baltimoreans.
“We are facing a massive eviction crisis that is going to be really overwhelming and really devastating to so many families in the city,” Amster said. “And we know that people are evicted due to unpaid water bills.”
From a financial perspective, implementing the WAEA is an investment for the city because it will keep more people housed, she said.
“So in addition to having a less financially responsible assistance model, you also are compounding the waste by allowing people to become homeless and be even more of a cost burden on the city,” Amster said. “It just doesn't make any sense to postpone this.”
City Council President Scott has not yet scheduled a council hearing on Young’s proposed legislation. The council passed the WAEA unanimously in December of last year.
Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for Scott, said he is committed to fully implementing the law.
“Unfortunately, the mayor recently signed an executive order delaying the implementation of the WAEA until well beyond his term in office and introduced legislation to amend the effective date,” Mavronis said. “As such, Council President Scott is actively working with advocates and the Department to determine the best way to get needed relief to residents as soon as possible.”
City Council will soon hold a hearing to further discuss implementing the bill soon, she said.
Eckel said she and other activists are looking forward to implementing the WAEA under Scott’s leadership.
“We're looking at how we set this implementation process up for success once we have an administration that is willing to do the work and accept that it will be challenging to implement this bill, but that it will be worth it,” she said.