Rudy Chow to step down as Baltimore DPW director in February

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Outgoing DPW Director Rudy Chow (at center) along side former Mayor Catherine Pugh (left) and 11th District Councilman Eric Costello (right). Photo via Mayor Catherine Pugh/Twitter.

After nine years serving with Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, most of that time as its director, Rudy Chow is set to retire next February.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office announced Chow’s planned February departure from his post this afternoon, with a release saying “Mayor Young thanks Director Chow for his leadership of the City’s Department of Public Works and his dedicated service to the citizens of Baltimore.”

It included no statements from the mayor or Chow, as such announcements often do, but did say Chow “will leave an agency dramatically changed from the one he took over as Director nearly six years ago.

“The strong, innovative financial management and capital investment plans he put in place ensure a less costly and more sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure for future generations, including his commitment to replacing at minimum 15 miles of water mains each year,” the announcement said.

It also noted DPW’s Bureau of Solid Waste was reconfigured during his tenure, as well as rat eradication efforts, the introduction of larger municipal trash cans for homes and solar-powered compacting trash cans in business districts, improvements to street sweeping and more.

The release quoted Chow’s own retirement notice to the mayor, including his points that that DPW has “achieved compliance across a range of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act regulatory requirements” and “met or exceed regulatory mandates” from the EPA and State of Maryland.

Chow has recently sparred with water-rights advocates and council members over legislation that would calculate an income-based water and sewer bill credit for Baltimore’s lowest-earning households. Young introduced the legislation last December, months before he was elevated to the position of mayor after Catherine Pugh resigned.

Chow has opposed the bill, which was written with help from water-rights advocates hoping to offer more aid to Baltimoreans whose water bills have risen by 10 percent or more annually since 2016 (and will continue to do so until at least June of 2022). The legislation would also institutionalize an appeals process for customers to dispute errant water bills, a relatively common occurrence.

The income-based aid would reduce revenues for the city that are helping to pay for billions in sewer infrastructure upgrades requiring under a federal consent decree, Chow has argued. He sought to keep the appeals process in-house within DPW, instead of the independent appeals system outlined in the legislation. Chow’s office ended a process of holding hearings for water bill disputes in 2017.

As an alternative to the bill, he instead introduced a heightened aid program (compared to previously offered aid) this past July called Baltimore H20 Assists.

And, after delaying amendments for months after hearings began on the legislation, Chow submitted them to council members for their review on Sept. 26, the same day they were scheduled to take a vote. The changes would have codified DPW’s newer aid programs while eliminating the more sweeping proposed income-based assistance program.

One of Chow’s biggest task has been overseeing a department entrusted with replacing hundreds of miles of century-old sewer mains beneath city streets. “It’s like a time bomb,” he told NPR’s Marketplace in 2015. “This old infrastructure, we know it’s going to fail. The question is where and when.”

His department has successfully repaired major water main breaks and resulting sinkholes in recent years, including in Mount Vernon and downtown, albeit at times after delays. This past summer, Council President Brandon Scott called a hearing to bring attention to what he said was an “unacceptable” response to a main break that left Poe Homes residents without adequate water service for more than a week.

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration hired Chow in 2011 to head DPW’s Bureau of Water, and he was elevated to the role of director in early 2014. Before coming to Baltimore, he served as chief of customer care for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Other projects completed under his watch have included the introduction of smart meters and monthly billing for city water customers, which were rolled out in 2016; the delivery of more than 172,000 wheel-equipped, rat-proof trash cans for households; real-time tracking of sewer overflows, which can be viewed on this map, and more.

The American Public Works Association this year recognized Chow as a Top 10 Public Works Leader of 2019, citing his move to apply for $200 million in assistance under EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to continue improving the city’s stormwater infrastructure.

Chow also made the top-12 among the highest-paid municipal employees in the most recent fiscal year, taking home $188,000 in salary, per city records.

Chow’s departure means he’ll be replaced as a member of Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, a powerful five-member panel that approves spending decisions every week.

Young’s announcement said the mayor plans to conduct a national search for a replacement.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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