Photo by Ethan McLeod

Baltimore residents and advocates packed the council chambers on Thursday evening to share their terrible tales of inaccurate meter readings, seeing their properties brought to tax sale and the resulting fallout in their lives stemming from the city’s administration of water bills.

Most came to support legislation that would establish income-based billing for low-income households, as well as an independent office for resolving disputes.

Leadenhall Baptist Church pastor Alvin Gwynn told of how he recently began monitoring his own water meter, and learned that the city was overcharging him by hundreds of gallons per day. Kimberly Armstrong of Belair-Edison detailed seeing her home placed on Baltimore’s tax sale list—twice—due to separate erroneous bills for $1,400 and $2,500. Karen Wabeke, senior attorney with Homeless Persons Representation Project, choked back tears talking about representing subsidized housing tenants battling landlords in rent court over billing disputes—some facing homelessness as a result.

“I can assure you that these issues are not new,” said Sen. Mary Washington (D-43rd District), there in support of the aforementioned reform legislation dubbed the Water Accountability and Equity Act. “They are becoming worse.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young introduced the long-awaited bill back when he was still council president this past fall, at the same time the Department of Public Works announced yet another three-year 30 percent rate hike for water and sewer service. “Help is on the way,” he assured bill payers at the time.

If approved, his sweeping proposal would calculate a customized monthly credit for low-income households depending on how close they are to the federal poverty line—and, in a major change, making assistance available to renters. At present, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ assistance programs are only available to property owners registered to the Department of Public Works’ water meters.

It would also allow bill payers to apply monthly payments against the overall balance they owe the city, reducing their debt; establish an independent Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to resolve disputes, operating outside of DPW and overseen by a committee of city officials; and require DPW to submit an annual report about participation in the program.

DPW has not gotten behind the push for income-based water billing, and has instead countered with the offering of Baltimore H20 Assists. The program would build on existing assistance options from the agency by offering 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. The program would also exempt participating households from other fees and award a $236 credit to those within 50 percent of the federal poverty line.

H20 Assists, which a DPW spokesperson said Thursday would reach as many as 43,000 customers, is set to roll out July 1.

Last night’s hearing concluded without a vote from the council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, though it gathered several hours worth of testimony from advocates, experts, city agencies—all but two of which supported the bill—and bill payers.

Missing from the room were Young, who originally sponsored the bill but has more recently thrown his support behind DPW’s milder assistance program, and DPW’s director, Rudy Chow.

Young was attending the grand opening for Broadway Market in Fells Point at 6 p.m. His spokesman, Lester Davis, told Baltimore Fishbowl earlier Thursday that the mayor is no longer directly involved in the legislative process for the proposal. “I know the council is working on it and I trust they’re gonna be thoughtful, but it’s out of his hands at this point,” Davis said.

Chow, to the disappointment of several council members, was also away. Asked for his whereabouts by Councilman Ed Reisinger (10th District), DPW spokesperson Yolanda Winkler said he was being “recognized nationally by the American Association for Public Works as one of the top 10 leaders in the industry.” The remark drew icy chuckles from advocates, who had minutes earlier testified that Chow has been generally unhelpful with water billing reform in Baltimore, including by ending informal dispute resolution conferences years ago.

While Baltimore’s Health, Housing and Community Development and Law departments, as well as the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, testified favorably for the legislation, DPW joined the Department of Finance as the only agencies objecting.

Finance has raised concerns about costs for establishing an entirely new Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, and about alterations the legislation would make to the tax sale process.

DPW’s director of legislative affairs, Marcia Collins, said DPW is worried about the costs and labor of bringing renters into payment programs that DPW presently only offers to homeowners.

“Our system right now is attached to meter service, and for us to be able to comply with this particular legislation, you need to be able to find… some other configuration that would be expanded to the tenants. We have some concerns about how that would be realized.”

Councilman Leon Pinkett (7th District) responded that “it’s a little bit unsettling” DPW would point to such challenges after hearing emotional testimony from Baltimoreans who have seen their homes go to tax sale, gone to rent court and other challenges tied to billing issues.

“At some point we can’t talk about challenges, we’ve got to talk about a solution,” he said.

A legislative analysis obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl Thursday calculated that DPW’s proposed assistance program would actually cost more than the Water Accountability and Equity Act. According to the report from the council president’s office, H20 Assists would have a cumulative cost of around $63.1 million from fiscal 2019 through 2024, while income-based billing for low-income households would cost roughly $44.1 million. Under both projections, enrollment in the programs would roughly double from around 15,000 or 16,000 households to more than 30,000.

Collins said she needed a “better understanding” of the numbers, as she had expected DPW’s program would be less expensive. The committee agreed to parse through the figures in work sessions.

Roger Colton, a Boston-based economist who authored a 2017 report that predicted Baltimore’s ongoing water rate hikes will only leave more Baltimoreans unable to pay, came down to share his support for Young’s proposal. He told council members the income-based method is the best option because it will help the city recoup revenue from bill payers who are paying what they can, instead of offering benefits flatly.

“Adopting an income-based rate is far superior to adopting an across the board discount rate,” he said.

Council President Brandon Scott said at the beginning of the hearing that the most common complaint he and others receive from constituents is erroneous and high water bills.

“It is clear to me that our current water system needs serious work,” he said.

Looking forward, committee members asked that Chow and DPW be more receptive to the idea of potentially overhauling how water billing is done in Baltimore.

“We need the director to have an open mind and sit down with the council and the advocates to work this out,” said Reisinger, noting that council members managed to do the same with Ryan Dorsey’s Complete Streets legislation last year.

Council Vice President and committee chair Sharon Green Middleton asked Winkler to communicate to Chow that he should be involved in any discussions surrounding billing reform.

“He certainly is open to that,” Winkler said.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...