After months of debate, delays, council committee advances income-based water billing legislation

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Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr

After hearings and multiple work sessions on legislation that would effectively scale water bills to income for Baltimore’s lowest-earning households, a council committee on Thursday approved the legislation and set it up for full council vote.

The Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee voted 5-0 to advance the Water Accountability and Equity Act–most notably, without amendments proposed by the city’s Department of Public Works, which has opposed the legislation.

“There are some issues that should not be politicized and this is one of them,” said Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, who helms the committee. “This legislation will affect residents of this city, some of whom live on fixed incomes and others who have fallen on hard times, and it is our job to be the protectors of those who can’t defend themselves.”

“We mean business now,” she added after the vote. “The residents cannot wait any longer for this act.”

DPW, which had already missed an initial summer deadline for proposing changes to the bill, filed 14 pages of amendments this morning. Council members, reps from city agencies and advocates all said they had had no time to review them before the hearing began.

“The committee cannot be expected to review all of these amendments on such short notice, the people cannot be expected to wait any longer,” Middleton chided. She added: “The Department of Public Works’ delay tactics will not stand in the way of that.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young introduced the bill in December 2018, when he was still council president. It was filed days after the Department of Public Works announced yet another three-year 30 percent rate hike for water and sewer service; water rates have risen 43 percent under city-approved increases since 2016, and are set to keep growing for the foreseeable future.

With more residents struggling to pay their bills as rates climb, Young worked with advocates on a proposal with a similar ethos to what’s being tested out in Philadelphia, calculating a custom monthly credit for low-income households based on how close they are to the federal poverty line.

The legislation makes the same option available to renters, who are currently excluded from city-provided financial aid for water bills, since DPW’s accounts are only for property owners registered to the city’s water meters.

The other key thrust of the bill is its creation of an independent Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals for customers to resolve disputes. The office would operate outside of DPW and be overseen by a committee of city officials.

At today’s hearing, DPW Director Rudy Chow continued to push the agency’s recently rolled out Baltimore H20 Assists and Plus aid programs as a better alternative to income-based water billing for the needy. The agency has opposed the latter, saying it would undercut the city’s ability to collect enough revenue from water and sewer bills to pay for ongoing, federally required upgrades to sewer infrastructure.

“Not reinvesting in our infrastructure is not the answer,” Chow said, “because we all know our infrastructure is crumbling.”

H20 Assists and Plus, introduced in July, offer a flat 43 percent discount to households with income at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty line, currently $36,365 for a household of three. They also exempt households from other fees. Those within 50 percent of the federal poverty line can get a $236 credit.

Chow acknowledged previous aid programs “did not provide a sufficient enough safety net,” but said the new ones can reach up to 43,000 households. He said DPW has registered 7,000 families so far, and called it “an early success.”

While Chow stressed a desire to work with advocates and council members on a compromise, Rianna Eckel, senior organizer for the group Food and Water Watch Maryland, told the committee DPW’s director “has refused to engage with us.” She said advocates tried to meet with DPW in the year prior to the bill’s introduction to discuss the proposal, but that he told them “he did not want or need any legislation” changing how water billing is done.

Advocates argue the legislation is the best course because it would let low-income households to pay at least some of their bills to the city, if not their fully issued monthly amount, and prevent more of them from falling behind on payments as rates rise. Housing advocates have also noted the exclusion of renters from the current billing framework put them at risk of eviction if they can’t pay their bills and violate the terms of their lease.

Furthermore, proponents say households need a thorough dispute resolution system. DPW eliminated its appeal process in 2017, removing a way to appeal charges if someone received an erroneous, higher-than-normal bill (as many have).

DPW’s amendments did suggest a new dispute resolution system to be handled by the city’s Environmental Control Board. But Eckel called that “deficient,” noting it would still give DPW the final say–specifically the ability to overturn those decisions–for each case.

“The merits of this legislation are clear,” she said.

Council President Brandon Scott voiced support for the measure after the committee vote, saying in a statement that “everywhere I go in Baltimore, the high cost of water and water billing issues top the list of concerns among residents. Building a more accountable and equitable water system is of the utmost importance. We have an opportunity to do that with this legislation.”

Eckel point out post-vote that the entire city council co-sponsored the legislation when it was first introduced, “and we have no reason to think they will walk back their commitment to this bill.”

It’s due for a second reader vote on Oct. 28.

Ethan McLeod
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