Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young is proposing a change to the city’s constitution that would bar any deals allowing an outside company to take over Baltimore’s water supply, addressing concerns by activists about whether the water system could be up for sale.
Young plans to introduce a charter amendment at a special meeting of the City Council on Monday at 2 p.m., according to Lester Davis, Young’s deputy chief of staff. From there, the proposal will essentially be fast-tracked. The council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill at 3 p.m.—”we expect it to move out of committee favorably,” Davis says—and then go to a second reader vote during the council’s scheduled meeting at 5 p.m.
Davis says Young plans to suspend procedural rules to move the bill immediately to a third reader vote. If it passes, it’ll be on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s desk Monday evening.
The legislation mandates that the city’s sewer and water systems are “hereby declared inalienable,” and excepts both systems from existing charter language that allows for “franchises or grants” of public assets for private deals.
The urgency is driven by a state-mandated deadline for localities to approve any charter amendments by Aug. 13, Davis said.
Young’s office predicts “near-unanimous support” for the amendment from the Baltimore City Council. Pugh must then sign the proposal for it to take effect. Davis said he expects she will do so, noting, “the legislation we’re introducing is legislation that she and the Law Department support.”
In a statement, Mayor Catherine Pugh affirmed she’d sign, calling the city’s water and sewer system a “priceless asset for the citizens of Baltimore.”
“I’m delighted that the City Council is supportive of my earlier efforts to safeguard Baltimore City’s water system and require that it is always operated in the best interests of those who rely on it, and for generations to come,” the mayor said.
Assuming it becomes law, the amendment should quash concerns from water-rights activists about private firms making overtures to the city to manage Baltimore’s troubled water system. Of particular concern is Suez Environment, a company The Sun reported in December had sent lobbyists to meet with “influential people inside and outside of City Hall.”
Their apparent pitch is that private administration of the water system–in which the company would pay upfront for a lease of the supply and then collect revenue from water bills–would ultimately reduce city debt.
Faced with massive expenses for infrastructural overhauls of the city’s pipes, and surmounting debt owed by many households that can’t afford their water bills, Baltimore has been raising water rates by 10 percent and sewer rates by 9 percent for three years now—and the city has projected additional rate hikes in documentation for bond buyers.
But activists from the group Food and Water Watch say allowing a private firm to take over the system isn’t the answer. They point to rising water rates, reduced quality of service and shutoffs in towns such as Camden, New Jersey, where the company New Jersey American Water took over administration of the city’s supply in 2016.
Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for Food and Water Watch, said in addition to “skyrocketing” rates, communities that strike water-privatization deals with companies often sees cuts to unionized public works jobs and worsening service spurred by companies “cutting corners” with materials and labor.
“Really, when a company comes in, they are looking to maximize their profit, and that is always at the expense of rate payers,” she said.
A commission appointed by Pugh in June proposed new charter language that would have opened a new avenue for the city’s spending board to approve contracts with vendors. Activists cried foul, saying it was a potential entry point for “public-private partnerships” for a water supply deal. Pugh’s office and the Department of Public Works responded with assurances they had no plans to do so.
“This shuts the door on all that,” Davis said of Young’s amendment. “It says definitively that the water system is not up for sale or for lease.”
Activists have also worked with Young since last winter to introduce legislation halting water rate hikes, though the bill still hasn’t been introduced. Davis said Friday, “We’re still making headway… on water affordability legislation.”
In between the hearings on Monday, Young, activists, the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., of Union Baptist Church, and Glen Middleton, president of local chapters of the public employees’ union AFSCME, will hold a press conference at 4 p.m. outside the council chambers in City Hall to announce the proposal, according to a media advisory.
This story has been updated.
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