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Baltimore launches much-delayed water bill discount program

A water meter in Baltimore City. The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition says a payment process attached to a water discount bill may jeopardize customers' benefits.
Under Cover / Flickr
A water meter in Baltimore City. Baltimore leaders launched a new water bill discount program Tuesday that offers tiered prices according to income, capping off a years-long legislative effort.

Baltimore leaders launched a new water bill discount program Tuesday that offers tiered prices according to income, capping off a years-long legislative effort.

The Water4All program is open to Baltimore households with yearly incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level, which amounts to about $34,840 for a household of two and $53,000 per year for a household of four.

The program caps water and sewage bills at 1%, 2% or 3% of participants’ income, adjusting for household size. Water bills that exceed 3% of a household income are unjust, according to the United Nations.

Mayor Brandon Scott says the tiered discount program will create a more equitable Baltimore, which has been plagued with complaints of high and inaccurate water bills for decades.

“Simply put, water for all will be a game changer for our residents,” the Democrat said at a news conference Tuesday.

The tiered discount program, which replaces an across-the-board discount program, has been in the works since 2018, when then-City Council President Jack Young introduced a sweeping piece of legislation intended to reform Baltimore’s water bill system.

The council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act legislation in 2019 under then-City Council President Scott; it was due to take effect in July 2020, when Young occupied the mayor’s office. Both Democrats pushed back the law’s implementation date, citing financial constraints due to the pandemic. The Scott administration missed the final July 2021 deadline to implement the law.

Though the law’s signature program is now in operation, some Water Accountability and Equity Act policies are still not implemented. The Department of Public Works has yet to establish an Office of the Consumer Advocate to assist customers with errant bills.

Rianna Eckel, of Food and Water Watch, commended Scott at the news conference for implementing the discount program. She noted that Water4All is Baltimore’s first water bill affordability program accessible to renters, who make up nearly half of households.

She said the program will also increase the city’s collections rate, pointing to data from a similar program in Philadelphia.

“When water bills are affordable, people pay them,” she said. “We’ll have a higher collection rate, a higher percentage of people paying into the system so that we can bring in more money to make the absolutely necessary infrastructure upgrades.”

Eckel also criticized how the program will distribute the discount to some customers.

By law, city water bills go to property owners; tenants cannot directly pay for water as they can for gas and electric bills. DPW will give the discount to renters who reimburse their landlords for water bills on preloaded debit cards, which the federal government considers to be taxable income. Homeowners in the program will see the discount applied directly on their bills.

Eckel cautioned that this may prevent some customers from accessing other income-based anti-poverty benefits. Other activists and tax experts have said that renters may incur financial penalties from the IRS if they fail to properly document the income in a 1099, the tax form for miscellaneous income.

Faith Leach, Deputy Mayor for Equity, Health and Human Services and Interim Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success, said the city will inform participants that they must report the discount to the IRS.

“We're also looking to train our staff so that they can provide benefits counseling, in case there are those residents who might be at risk of losing benefits,” she said, adding that officials will work with state and federal legislators on potential fixes.

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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