Advocates Demand Protections for Residents, Workers During Baltimore Water Inquiry
Published Mar 15, 2023
Committee denies spoken testimony from the public during hearing on Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force
Baltimore, MD — Today, the Maryland Senate Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment will hold a hearing on the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force (SB 880), but the committee has limited spoken testimony to include only the bill sponsors for technical reasons. Advocates have been calling for amendments to the legislation to expand public input and engagement and expressed alarm that they were denied a chance to speak to the committee.
SB 880 establishes a Task Force to recommend a new governance model for the Baltimore water and sewer utility. The intention is to guide state legislation to enact the recommended changes as early as next year and could be the first step to establish a regional authority.
Advocates have proposed five amendments to address serious shortcomings with the legislation: (1) include labor and low-income ratepayer representation on the task force; (2) require racial equity and economic equity impact assessments; (3) preserve existing labor and ratepayer protections established by local jurisdictions; (4) require public comment and public hearings; and (5) provide adequate time for due diligence.
Sixteen organizations have signed on in support of the proposed amendments: 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East; AFT Maryland; Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees; Baltimore Green Space; Blue Water Baltimore; Clean Water Action; Food & Water Watch; Friend of Clean Water Baltimore; Maryland Legislative Coalition; Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Our Revolution Baltimore City/County; Progressive Maryland; SANIPLAN; Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland; and Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
“Disallowing public discourse and debate at this level is a harbinger of what’s to come in the Task Force itself if we don’t expand the scope of the stakeholder group,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore. “Our proposed amendments align with the recommendations of the very study that this Task Force is based on; we call upon the Senators in this committee to hear our concerns, even though we have been silenced today.”
“The public deserves a say in the future of our water and sewer system,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch. “The system is Baltimore City’s largest asset by far, and this legislation sets the stage for a major change that would have profound impacts on utility workers and residents, particularly low-income households and seniors. The State Senators should adopt the amendments from the Coalition. Otherwise, the regionalization process initiated by this legislation could open the door to privatization, rate hikes, and mass shutoffs, and exclude the City’s majority Black population from key decision making about this essential service.”
“This taskforce has the potential to shape water utility policy for generations,” said Kenya Campbell, President of the American Federation of Teachers-Maryland, a union representing water and wastewater treatment employees for Baltimore City and Baltimore County. “True democracy means we include all voices. Thus far we have no guarantees this proposed task force will include Baltimore city and county workers who have served the public for decades, nor our most vulnerable residents who qualify for lowered water bills.
“This task force, and its potential ramifications are too great to shut out such vital voices,” Campbell continued. “Public employees deserve a say in the future of their work, and our most vulnerable citizens need to be represented so policymakers can understand how their decisions will affect each and every resident.”
“Water is a human right and a basic necessity, but the Task Force process outlined in the legislation as-is does not treat the task at hand with enough deference,” said Rianna Eckel, Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Regionalization could end local provisions that are crucial for Baltimoreans such as the Water4All program, the innovative percentage-of-income affordability program, established by the city after the passage of the Water Accountability & Equity Act, as well as the soon-to-launch office of the water customer advocate. The model of the Water4All program was actually inspired by legislation advocates have been trying to pass in Detroit for over 13 years – but can’t make any progress because of the undemocratic control of their regional water authority. Instead, water customers in Detroit have been met with rate hikes and mass shutoffs. While we want to be a partner in ensuring the water system works better for all customers regardless of their jurisdiction, we must not act hastily and must consider the needs and consequences for our most vulnerable communities.”
Press Contact: Peter Hart [email protected]