Mayor Young orders delay of scheduled water rate increase

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Photo by Ricky Romero, via Flickr

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered a delay for a water rake hike scheduled to take effect on July 1, saying he didn’t want to impose the increased cost on residents during “this time of uncertainty and extraordinary need.”

“This is an effort to support a comprehensive response and recovery to this unprecedented emergency without adding further burden on our residents,” Young said in a statement.

The mayor asked the Department of Public Works and Department of Finance to develop a plan that pushes the increase to Oct. 1 and said he will present it to the Board of Estimates in the coming weeks.

In 2018, the city proposed annual rate increases of 9.9 percent over the course of three years to help pay for billions in repairs for Baltimore’s network of pipes. The city is under a federal consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was extended in 2017, to overhaul water and sewer infrastructure and bring it into the 21st century.

The year prior, a report commissioned by activist group Food and Water Watch Maryland found that continued increases would make water bills unaffordable for nearly half of Baltimoreans.

And that would have an adverse impact on revenue for the city, economist Roger Colton concluded.

“As bills become more and more unaffordable, the City realizes less and less cash from each rate increase,” he wrote. “As the City collects less and less money, it is forced to raise rates even higher to replace the funds not collected.”

While DPW offers assistance to those who cannot afford their bills, the city council in 2019 passed a law tying water rates to income over the objections of the agency’s former director, Rudy Chow.

Young signed the bill at the start of 2020.

But the law’s fate is still uncertain. DPW’s acting director, Matthew Garbark, told the council last month the administration is not ready to have the law fully implemented by July 13, as is required.

City Council President Brandon Scott said he is determined to implement the legislation on time.

“We understand that COVID-19 has impacted our work as a city government, and I appreciate the administration’s honesty and efforts in continuing to prioritize the implementation of the Water Accountability and Equity Act,” he said. “But it is my full expectation that this legislation is implemented on time. Getting water bill relief to our residents is more important than ever.”

In response to the pandemic, Young announced the Department of Public Works would not shut off the water of residents who are unable to pay their bills and waived late fees. With billing resuming this month after two months without charges, Young offered discounts to residents who can prove they are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Other lawmakers have proposed going further. Last month, City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed called for a moratorium on bills for 180 days, a proposal that was co-signed by councilmembers Ryan Dorsey (3rd District) and Zeke Cohen (1st District).

Brandon Weigel

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