For the last two years, the city water rate has risen by 9.9 percent and the sewer rate has climbed by 9 percent as part of a three-year plan approved in 2016. On Sunday, it’s happening again.
The city’s intentions behind this plan are good. Baltimore’s pipes are very old. The city and county are working together to make billions of dollars’ worth of repairs to the sewer system, which routinely suffers from backups and spews sewage into local waterways when it becomes inundated with rain.
The plan approved in 2016 was to raise water and sewer rates by 33 percent collectively by this July.
“Raising rates is never easy, but ensuring quality water service and a cleaner environment has to be our legacy,” read a statement from then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who voted to approve the hike alongside Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow and former interim City Solicitor David Ralph, per the Baltimore Business Journal.
But some have said this wasn’t the right approach, since many can’t afford their monthly bills as-is.
Last year, water rights advocacy group Food and Water Watch commissioned a report from economist Roger Colton that argued these rate hikes are unsustainable for most households. Part of Colton’s thesis: It doesn’t benefit the city for water and sewer service to become more expensive, since one in three residents already found their service unaffordable by international standards–more than 3 percent of their income–in 2016.
As a result, many residents find themselves unable to pay their bills and become delinquent. Non-payment can trigger dire consequences like water shutoffs during the summer months and, for churches, businesses and homes with combined debt to the city surmounting $750, tax sales in which the city auctions off their liens to eager buyers in the spring.
“As bills become more and more unaffordable, the City realizes less and less cash from each rate increase,” Colton wrote in his report, describing a cyclical process. “As the City collects less and less money, it is forced to raise rates even higher to replace the funds not collected.”
The city does offer assistance to residents in the form of grants for low-income customers who pay their bills, a 43 percent discount for seniors with a household income in a certain range, exemptions from the so-called rain tax and payment plans for delinquent customers.
A Thursday release from DPW notes these options will all increase correspondingly with water and sewer rates on Sunday. That includes the annual grants, rising from $216 to $236, and the income threshold for seniors, bumping up from $30,600 to $31,500.
But activists are hoping the city will jump out of the cycle Colton described by opting for income-based billing, a plan the economist recommended. Philadelphia began experimenting with this approach last year. It carries an estimated cost of $18 million per year for the city, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.
City Councilman Bill Henry told The Sun almost exactly one year ago that he and Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young had planned to introduce legislation capping residents’ monthly water bills at 3 percent of their income. However, The Brew reported in December the measure’s introduction was delayed until January, with Henry citing a need to “make sure everything is perfect” with the legislation and how it would affect DPW. The spring came and went, and the bill was never introduced.
Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for Food and Water Watch, says DPW has opposed the measure, contributing to delays. (A staffer at the DPW said all spokespeople were out Friday and wouldn’t be available until Monday.)
Eckel says hiking rates instead of factoring affordability into the equation is “pricing even more people out of service.” And DPW’s bumps in financial assistance to match the 9.4 percent rate increase are “simply not enough, and will not substantially help people.”
An affordability-based plan would be “revenue neutral,” she argues, because the city would be able to bring in at least some payments from otherwise delinquent customers who can’t afford the current rates.
A media advisory from Food and Water Watch says activists plan to rally Monday morning with faith leaders and others—Councilman Zeke Cohen is on the list—at War Memorial Plaza.
Cohen says issues with inaccurate bills or problems making payments have “consumed an inordinate amount of my time in office.”
“Our current system is not working out for the citizens of our city,” he says. “We need to look to alternatives, and the data that I’ve been presented from cities and municipalities that have moved toward an income-based program is compelling.”
Savings for other locales have included reduced administrative costs and time spent trying to track down those who can’t pay their bills, he says.
Asked whether he plans to introduce or sponsor legislation that would establish income-based billing, Cohen said “no options are off the table.”
Eckel says activists’ hope is to “draw attention to the lack of action from the city,” including Mayor Catherine Pugh and council members. “They’re the only ones that can act on it.”
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