Baltimore’s spending board has signed off on yet another steep three-year hike in the city’s water and sewer rates, set to begin this July.
The Board of Estimates voted 3-2 this morning in favor of the increase, with Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt voting against three straight years of 9.9 percent water rate increases ending in June 2022. The sewer rate will also be climbing by 9 percent each year, as will the stormwater remediation fee (known also as the “rain tax”), which hasn’t changed since it was implemented in 2013.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow and City Solicitor Andre Davis voted in favor of the increase.
The board’s vote comes after a series of town halls with Baltimoreans about the water rate, which has already been rising steeply since 2016, when officials approved a prior 33 percent rate increase (still ongoing through this June). DPW has said it needs to continue raising rates at such extreme levels in order to pay for billions in infrastructure repairs for sewers and drinking water. The city is legally bound to upgrade its sewer system under a consent decree with state and federal environmental regulators.
The reason we must all pay for it all now, Chow and DPW have argued, is because the city put off the necessary maintenance on the city’s sewer and water infrastructure, as well as rate increases to pay for it, for far too long.
“For years, the City neglected to raise its water rates over time,” Chow said in a statement after the vote today. “That resulted in deferring necessary maintenance, a long list of needed investments, and a federal wastewater consent decree that tells us how we must spend our money. We have begun to take on these expensive investments in the last few years and are nearing the point when we will see the magnitude of requested rate increases start to decline, and reach a steady state of modest, inflationary adjustments.”
The approval vote came a day after council members Zeke Cohen, Bill Henry, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, Kristerfer Burnett and Shannon Sneed made a last-ditch attempt to delay it until further study. The contingent from the council gathered outside City Hall late Tuesday afternoon to call on DPW to release an independent analysis on their proposed rate increases to explain the math behind it all to the public. Cohen said he had formally requested such a study from Chow in a letter sent Dec. 21, but never heard back from him. DPW did not respond to a request for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl on Tuesday.
Asked about the results of the vote Wednesday, Cohen said he was disappointed–particularly about the fact that DPW never obliged his request for the math used to justify the hike.
“This is a sophisticated city,” he said. “People understand the need for investment in infrastructure, but to simply jack the rates by 30 percent without demonstrating a clear analysis of the need or where the money’s going, is insulting. It’s insulting to the public and it’s insulting to me and my colleagues.”
Burnett acknowledged the city needs to find a way to pay for the very expensive infrastructural fixes that were long neglected by the city. “There are real infrastructure issues,” he said. However, he added: “We also need, more than ever, transparency about how we arrive at these decisions. I go to community meetings all throughout my district and obviously people are always asking about paying more, and the first thing they ask me is, Where is the money going?”
As Henry put it in an email, “At the end of the day, this was less about whether the rates would rise and more about the openness and transparency of how, when and why that decision was made.”
In a statement sent out this morning, Young said he voted against the increase “because I am concerned about the way it will impact those least able to pay.”
“Water rates have risen through the roof over the last decade and I have voted no on every increase,” he said. “I recognize the City’s infrastructure needs are severe but our citizens cannot continue to be asked to foot the bill for all of the work.”
Water-rights advocates have joined council members in decrying yet another prolonged rate hike for a city where many residents already can’t afford their utility bills. United Nations standards say water bills should account for 3 percent or less of household income. But here in Baltimore, at least a third of households have devoted more than 3 percent of their income to water bills in recent years. And economist Roger Colton, commissioned by the nonprofit Food and Water Watch Maryland to study the ongoing rate hikes in 2017, calculated the proportion with unaffordable water bills would rise to more than half of the city’s households by this year.
“A 30 [percent] water rate hike, with no real end in sight, is no joke,” Rianna Eckel, Maryland senior organizer for Food and Water Watch, said in a statement. “Higher water rates spell misery for Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents.”
Young has introduced legislation to create a new income-based water billing option for households below or anywhere close to the poverty limit. The bill would also create the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to help customers sort out billing disputes, and require additional oversight of DPW on water billing issues, among other changes.
His legislation was referred to city agencies for review in December and has not yet been scheduled for any committee hearings.
Cohen said Young’s bill “will be important for establishing both transparency and equity.” But he wants to go even further in monitoring DPW’s handling of billing. “I’m gonna continue to press for a greater level of oversight over DPW, because I think what this shows is that they need it,” he said.
DPW has estimated the 30 percent jump in the water rate over the next three years will cause the average three-person household’s bill to rise from $91.81 this year to $118.46 in 2022, according to a table in this week’s Board of Estimates agenda.
The “modest, inflationary adjustments” that Chow mentioned are likely years away. DPW is already forecasting another three-year, 30 percent water rate increase from fiscal 2023-2025.
This story has been updated.