Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr

The president of the Baltimore City Council is introducing legislation tonight to help some of the city’s low- and moderate-income households with paying their water and sewer bills, and to create a new avenue for customers to resolve billing disputes and errors.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed Water Accountability and Equity Act, first reported to be ready for introduction by Baltimore Fishbowl last week, would allow households earning less than twice the federal poverty limit for income to apply for an annual credit that would reduce their utility bills by splitting it out over 12 months.

The legislation uses a formula, Credit = Bill Total—Income x Affordability Threshold, for drawing up a household’s “Water-for-All Credit,” tied to how close they are to the federal poverty level. If they make 50 percent or less of the poverty limit, the affordability threshold in that equation is 1 percent; for those making between 50 and 100 percent of the threshold, it’s 2 percent; and for households making more than 100 percent, but less than 200 percent of the poverty level, it’s 3 percent.

We realize that’s not that clear, so let’s plug this into some examples. For a family of four, the federal poverty limit is $25,100. If they earn 50 percent of that amount, or $12,550, and have an annual water bill total of $860 (the average for 2018, Young’s office said in a legislative analysis report), they would receive a yearly credit of $734.50, or $61.20 off of their monthly water and sewer bill.

If they make 75 percent of the federal poverty level, or $18,825, they would get a credit of $483.50, or $40.29 per month.

And if they make just over 100 percent of the limit—let’s say $25,200—they would receive an annual credit of $104, or $8.67 per month.

And what’s more: Each monthly payment under the plan would be double-counted to help cut down a customer’s outstanding debt. So, if a household paid $100 for their monthly bill, $100 would also be knocked off of the total they owe to the city.

At a press conference today announcing the legislation, Young said “a common misconception is that poor people don’t want to pay their bills. This is terrible slander and totally false. People pay bills that they can afford.”

He likened the burden of raising someone’s billing rate year after year, as Baltimore has done since 2016, and is planning to do for three more years, to quadrupling a middle-class homeowner’s mortgage by raising the interest rate by double-digit percentage points.

“We’ll see if that doesn’t cause you to miss a few payments,” he said.

To enroll in Young’s proposed Water-for-All Credit plan, a customer would need to submit an application and proof of income, though the legislation as written would allow people already enrolled for other state benefits like electronic benefit transfer (used for food stamps and other programs) to skip the income-verification step, since their info is already on file.

Beyond help paying the bills, Young’s legislation would also create a new Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to resolve billing disputes, operating outside of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works and reporting at least twice a year to a newly created Committee for Office Oversight.

The office would have advocates assigned to work with customers on their cases and write a report for each complaint, which could lead to a water rate adjustment or other relief. If a customer were unsatisfied with the outcome, they could appeal to DPW and, if that failed to please, appeal further to the court system.

The director of DPW, the city council president, three other council members, the city auditor and the inspector general would make up the oversight committee.

“My concern, along with affordability, has always been the right of appeal, the right for people who can’t get the bill straightened out and know that they either can’t afford it or that there’s something missing in the analysis of what’s wrong,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke at today’s announcement. “This bill includes that neutral, third-party ability to appeal if you run through the system and you haven’t got satisfaction.”

Clarke and the other 15 members of the Baltimore City Council attended the press conference in support of the bill, and Young said he has received their unanimous support.

His bill would also require DPW to submit an annual report proving it’s tracked metrics for participation in the credit program, and for water service overall. “The department is currently unable to answer basic questions related to water collection rates and outstanding debt,” the legislative analysis report from Young’s office noted.

The legislation was drafted with help from a coalition of advocates and groups. Contributors included Food and Water Watch Maryland, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, human rights attorney Zafar Shah of the Public Justice Center and Komal Vaidya from the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Community Development Clinic, among others. The text has been more than a year in the making.

Ellyn Riedl, a staff attorney with MVLS, said at today’s press conference that she works with clients facing the loss of their homes at tax sale, most of them due to debt from unpaid water bills. Many of them seniors or people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, she said.

The “rate increases we continue to see are leaving behind low-to-moderate income residents,” she said, and DPW’s current and proposed assistance programs “are simply inadequate to address the needs of many customers.” But under Young’s proposed changes, clients would have new options to help reduce their payments and debt, as well as an appeals system “that provides proper due process, oversight and, most important, public accountability.”

The legislation is being unveiled just after DPW last week announced a planned series of continued water and sewer rate increases—as well as the first-ever bump in the stormwater remediation fee—to tack on to a combined 33 percent water rate increase since 2016. The latest proposed hikes, totaling 30 percent for the water rate and 27 percent for the sewer rate, are being implemented to help pay for billions in infrastructural repairs and upgrades, DPW said. They would last through June of 2022.

Activists were caught off-guard by DPW’s announced increases, which will first need to be approved by the city’s spending board in January. Mary Grant, of Food and Water Watch, said the reveal appeared to be in response to Young’s plans to introduce his income-based billing credit proposal. Still, she noted both plans could implemented at once.

Asked about Young’s plan, DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said on Thursday, “We’re not in a position to comment on other plans, but President Young is a strong advocate for affordability and we will continue to work with him.”

Critics of the city’s existing water-billing system, including economist Roger Colton, who was commissioned to write a report on Baltimore by Food and Water Watch last year, have argued that Baltimore is already trapped in a spiral of water rate hikes that leave delinquent customers increasingly challenged to pay their bills. Colton argued that Baltimore should try out an income-based system that scales bills to residents’ earnings, as Philadelphia is currently doing, so as to collect at least some, if not all of their desired revenues from billing charges.

An advisory from Young’s office today for tonight’s announcement noted that “a forthcoming 30-percent water rate increase adds urgency to the Council President’s ordinance.” It also nodded to Colton’s report, which said that 2019 will mark the year that water bills will become unaffordable, by international standards, for more than half of Baltimore’s households.

“Help is on the way,” Young said today.

This story has been updated.

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...