Sen. Ben Cardin says a new bill he’s co-sponsored in Congress could help to break Baltimore’s seemingly endless cycle of water and sewer rate hikes, as well as water shutoffs and tax sales for low-income customers who can’t pay their bills.
While the bill applies nationally, if passed, Baltimore would be an ideal pilot city, he said at a press conference at City Hall today. The legislation would create 64 programs offering financial assistance to customers of public utilities across the country, 32 of them for drinking water and 32 more for wastewater. Cities or towns that receive the programs must have at least 20 percent of their population living at or below the federal poverty line, and have raised their water or sewer rates by at least 30 percent over the last three years. Each program would be backed by a five-year commitment and tailored to suit the needs of its jurisdiction.
“Every household should have access to clean, affordable water,” Cardin said. “This bill will help us go a long way in reaching that goal.”
Maryland’s senior senator appeared with Mayor Catherine Pugh, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow and others to stump for his bill, which he’s optimistic will pass in the 2018-19 legislative session with bipartisan support.
Chow laid out the dismal situation Baltimore faces: The city is under federal court order to overhaul and modernize its century-old sewer system, requiring billions of dollars in upgrades and maintenance. Officials have therefore imposed a series of rate hikes (with more expected in coming years) to help pay for it all.
But residents are already struggling to pay their bills, and raising the cost of water only adds to the deficit. In turn, the city then opts to keep raising rates to try to compensate for lost revenue. In a report prepared for Food and Water Watch Maryland last year, economist Roger Colton said the city “is impeding its own progress” in this spiral-like cycle.
“Federal assistance as proposed in the Water Affordability Act would send a message of hope to our customers helping to stretch out their household budget,” Chow said today. And while he nodded to DPW’s existing aid options for customers who’ve fallen behind on payments—annual credits for low earners, discounts for seniors with household incomes of $31,500 or less, payment plans—”the need remains great,” he said.
The legislation is designed with the whole country in mind, from rural communities to large cities. The bill text says the 32 pilot programs would be doled out evenly, with eight apiece going to places with populations of 1 million or more, 100,000 to 1 million, 10,000 to 100,000 and fewer than 10,000.
Residents who can’t afford to pay their bills here in Baltimore–or fall victim to sky-high surprise bills–face stiff penalties, including water shutoffs from April through October or the loss of their homes, churches or businesses to tax lien sales.
This past spring, state lawmakers passed a watered-down protection for residents from tax sales, effectively suspending them for 2019, rather than two years as the bill was originally proposed–and applying the change only to residential properties, not churches or businesses. Another bill that would have banned the practice outright passed the House of Delegates unanimously but was left to die in a Senate committee, allegedly for political reasons.
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