Photo by Ricky Romero, via Flickr

A contingent from the Baltimore City Council today called for the city to share the calculus behind behind yet another planned water utility rate increase, one day before Baltimore’s Board of Estimates is scheduled to vote on a three-year, 30 percent water and sewer rate hike for city dwellers and businesses.

“For the public to have faith in our water system, we need transparency and we need accountability,” First District Councilman Zeke Cohen said outside City Hall. “People need to trust that their tax dollars are going to the right place.”

Joined by colleagues Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (5th District), Bill Henry (4th District), Kristerfer Burnett (8th District) and Shannon Sneed (13th District), as well as water-rights advocates, Cohen called on Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow to first secure an independent study of the agency’s proposed increases, announced in December, before they go to the spending board. The study should mathematically justify the planned rate bumps, they said.

The Board of Estimates, consisting of Mayor Catherine Pugh, Chow, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Solicitor Andre Davis and Comptroller Joan Pratt, is set to hear public testimony on the increases before voting tomorrow morning. The board’s agenda for this week spells out future revenue projections, but not details on how DPW determined a 9.9 percent annual jump in the water rate is the appropriate increase.

Cohen said he had requested such a study in a formal letter to Chow on Dec. 21, but has not heard back in the nearly three weeks since. He said other jurisdictions in Maryland, including the City of Rockville, Ocean City and Harford County, ordered such analyses to be shared with the public before approving water rate increases.

“I’m a member of the Baltimore City Council and I can’t get a written response,” he prodded. “How are other citizens going to be treated?”

Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to DPW for comment on the call for a study, and on Chow’s alleged lack of response to Cohen.

Schleifer, whose Northwest Baltimore district borders Pikesville, said ongoing water rate increases are among the factors causing Baltimoreans to flee the city, chipping away at its tax base. “These rate increases will surely force more residents out of Baltimore city. We cannot afford the loss of even one more resident or business.”

Henry said that DPW more clearly explained the math behind the city’s currently ongoing three-year, 33 percent water and sewer rate bump back in 2016. “We had hearings on water rate hikes back in the last term in which DPW reps came to the council and laid out for us where Baltimore stood in terms of other cities and subdivisions that were comparable, and how at that point our water rates were relatively low compared to other places.”

Baltimore has for years been locked into a federally enforced consent decree with state and federal environmental regulators to upgrade its sewer system, an effort costing billions of dollars. DPW explained three years ago that the increases would help to pay back money the city has borrowed to pay for those infrastructural repairs, Henry said.

“But that was then and this is now. It’s been several years.”

As has been widely reported, it’s relatively common here in Baltimore to receive an inaccurate water bill with charges in the hundreds, even thousands. Residents risk seeing their homes taken away or having their water shut off if they do not pay delinquent bills or resolve errors in a timely fashion.

Cohen said his office has assisted with 269 complaints from constituents about high, erroneous or missing bills during his two years on the council. He said he he received a bill for more than $300 last month—far higher than his normal monthly charge—leading him to quip that he at first thought his infant daughter had been taking too many baths. (He said the reality was that his previous four monthly bills had actually been inaccurate, prompting the sudden increase.)

Molly Amster, of Jews United for Justice, one of several nonprofits that make up the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, said she saw her own home put on the city’s water lien tax sale list after she suffered issues with the billing system, which then caused her mortgage to increase.

“This is a crisis. Baltimore residents are losing their homes,” she said.

DPW does offer some assistance with water billing debt, including the newly unveiled Baltimore H2O Assists program, which reduces a low-income household’s water and sewer rates and eliminates the bay restoration and stormwater remediation fees from their monthly bill. To be eligible, household income must be at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or $36,365 for a three-person household this year.

The agency also offers payment plans to low-income customers, discounts for seniors with household incomes of $31,500 or less, and a hardship exemption from remediation and restoration fees.

But water-rights advocates and lawmakers argue those options aren’t enough to help with what one economist has said is a downward spiral of municipal water bill debt, in which the city keeps raising rates and further prevents residents from being able to pay or make up for their delinquent bills.

Last month, Young introduced legislation, backed by the entire council, that would scale a household’s bill to income if it’s below or anywhere around the poverty limit. It would also create a new entity for handling water billing disputes, called the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, and require additional oversight of DPW on water billing issues, among other changes.

The bill was referred to city agencies for review in December and has not yet been scheduled for any committee hearings.

Aside from calling for the independent study, Amster and others argued the rates hikes–which could be approved as soon as tomorrow morning, and would take effect on July 1– shouldn’t get the green light until Young’s bill is passed.

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...