Sneed calls for moratorium on water bills for 180 days

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City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed called on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to place a moratorium on collecting money for water and sewer service as Baltimoreans struggle with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent to the mayor today, Sneed (13th District) pointed to the more than 15,000 residents who have already filed for unemployment and small business owners who have seen sales decline or had to shut down altogether.

“Baltimoreans need water bill relief now,” Sneed wrote. “We ask that you relieve residents of water bill payments immediately to help combat this economic devastation head on.”

She suggested Young move a measure to abate water bills through the Board of Estimates, on which the mayor sits along with the city council president, city solicitor, comptroller and director of the Department of Public Works.

In recent years, DPW has raised water rates to pay for federally mandated repairs to the city’s aging water and sewer system. The Environmental Protection Agency mandated the city prevent sewage from entering the harbor by 2030–well past an initial 2015 deadline set in 2002.

The century-old sewer system has several outflows–there used to be as many as 62–that purposefully divert sewage into local waterways when it is overwhelmed.

One of the biggest components of the repair work is the Headworks Project, a $430 million effort to fix a 10-mile sewage backup under the streets of East Baltimore originating at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County.

A report released last May by Waterfront Partnership said the project was due to be completed by the end of 2020. But that was well before coronavirus hit.

Sneed, who is running for city council president, wrote today that the council would seek federal funds to prevent any delays in the city’s repair work and cover costs incurred by DPW.

Representatives from Mayor Young’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl. Earlier this year, Young signed the Water Accountability and Equity Act into law–a bill he had originally proposed when he was president of the council–tying water billing to income.

Some of Sneed’s colleagues, however, threw their support behind the idea on social media.

Third District Councilman Ryan Dorsey tweeted the city’s previous order to stop service shut-offs during the pandemic does not go far enough.

“We need to protect against the financial hardship that will continue to mount for months to come, and this is an important and practical way the City can help,” he said.

First District Councilman Zeke Cohen tweeted that he hears from families every day who are struggling.

“We must do everything in our power to provide relief during this crisis,” he said.

Dan Sparaco, an attorney who is also running for council president, said the proposal went too far and would put the entire system at risk.

“We pay water bills so employees get paid their salaries, and so the work needed to maintain our system gets done,” he said in a statement. “If we stopped collecting bills for six months, the water system would default on millions of dollars of bonds to pay for major construction projects–a catastrophic event with long term consequences.”

He said aid should be targeted to those who need it most, and that people who can still afford to pay their water bill should.

Baltimore faces a budget deficit of $42.3 million in the current fiscal year, which ends in June, after losing convention business, hotel and admissions taxes, income tax from residents, and revenue from parking and traffic camera tickets–all due to the pandemic.

The Department of Finance estimates revenue will be off by $100 million in the next fiscal year as a result of coronavirus.

At a press conference Tuesday, Young balked at a proposal put forth by Council President Brandon Scott to use $25 million from the city’s rainy day fund to establish a series of relief programs.

Councilmembers are asking for a lot of programs, but “none of them are responsible for the budget,” he said.

“Our budget don’t look good in this pandemic,” Young said. “And we have to be reasonable and not be political about this, because this is a pandemic we have never faced and our budget is drained.”

Henry Raymond, director of the Department of Finance, said the rainy day fund will be used for core services. The city is looking for other funding sources to meet the demands presented by the pandemic.

This story has been updated.

Brandon Weigel

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