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Advocates call for implementation of delayed water bill affordability law

AMR Meter by PSNH via flickr
A water meter. The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition is calling on city leaders to implement an on-the-books law that would assist low-income residents with water bills.

Baltimore advocates called on City Council members Thursday to push for the implementation of a law passed in 2019 that would create a water bill affordability program and staff a new office to assist city residents hit with high bills.

Amy Hennen, the Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, told the council’s Rules and Legislative Oversight committee that implementing the law would both increase city revenue and financially assist low-income residents by making water bills more affordable — and therefore more likely to be paid.

The council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act in 2019, with the vehement support of then-Mayor Jack Young and then-City Council President Brandon Scott. It was due to go into effect in July 2020, but both Democrats pushed back the law’s implementation date, citing financial constraints due to the pandemic.

At the same time, city leaders have allowed for previously scheduled water price hikes approved under former Mayor Catherine Pugh — a 30% increase over three years — to go into effect.

The city’s aging sewer system, which also services Baltimore County, has long been beleaguered with dysfunction; a 2019 report from the city’s and county’s Offices of the Inspector General found that 22,000 dysfunctional water meters that resulted in millions of dollars worth of uncollected revenue.

Meanwhile, city residents are paying the price, Hennen said.

In an interview, Hennen recalled the plight of a client who was hit one month with a water bill of nearly $750, after contract work on her home. The client, a senior woman who lives alone in a North Baltimore rowhome on a fixed income, thought the bill was a one-off mistake — but the next month, she received a similar bill.

Hennen brought the $1,500 worth of bills as well as the receipts of the contract work to the attention of the Department of Public Works, hoping that the agency might identify a leak within the house and adjust her bill. The sum owed was only reduced by $75, Hennen said.

Had the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA) already been implemented, Hennen said, her client’s plight likely would have been resolved more judiciously. The law calls for the creation of the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, which would assist customers who received errant bills.

“If this office, that would be focused on solutions for customers, was in place, it would be a much more reasonable avenue to seek some sort of resolution or even just ask more questions: what’s going on here, can you break down what happened with this water bill?” Hennen said.

The law also calls for Water4All, a program that would provide tiered discounts for low-income residents meant to replace H2O Assists, which provides a flat discount. Hennen said that the latter program stopped taking applications July 1, while the WAEA has yet to be implemented.

“I was hoping to get my client into the previous discount program because I wanted her to still have a discounted bill while we were waiting for this new program,” she said.

Councilman Mark Conway, who called for the hearing, said that he and his peers on the council receive multiple new water billing issues from constituents each week that often go unresolved for months, as well as price adjustments that do not fully compensate for errant bills.

“These aren't just issues falling through the cracks. They remain systemic deficiencies that enable these problems to persist,” he said. “I want to see the provisions of the Water Accountability and Equity Act implemented.”

Marcia Collins of the Department of Public Works said she would like to roll out several portions of the WAEA this month, “but it's predicated on getting a couple of other programs in place and nailed down.”

A spokesman for Scott said the mayor is confident that his administration will implement this program effectively and efficiently.

“True reform requires diligence and realistic timelines, and we’re already seeing progress under Director Mitchell and the Department of Public Works,” said Cal Harris.

In a statement, City Council President Nick Mosby noted that the law was the mayor’s legislation while he served on the Council and that the Council stands ready to support the administration to work through their concerns about implementation.

“Water affordability was a problem before the pandemic, during the pandemic and without action it will be after the pandemic,” he said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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