BALTIMORE, MD – Baltimore City Councilmembers joined a coalition of grassroots, labor, and faith groups at City Hall on Monday to raise concerns about a new task force charged with evaluating the city’s water and sewer systems.
Emergency state legislation creating the Baltimore Water Regionalization Task Force was written and advanced behind closed doors, and then rushed through in the final days of the legislative session in April. Meaningful public participation was excluded at every step of the way.
At the press conference, Councilwoman Odette Ramos announced a resolution she is crafting calling for an informational hearing to shed light on the Task Force. It will be introduced in July.
“The Baltimore Regional Water Task Force is an important step to understand the relationship between the City water system, how we serve County residents, and the inequitable rates that residents pay,” said Councilwoman Odette Ramos. “However, there is no transparency in who is being appointed to the task force and what their work will be. The task force also has to rush to make a report by the January General Assembly, which gives very little time for public engagement and input. We hope the resolution that will result in a hearing will shed some light on this so residents can be confident in the process.”
“If we do not maintain local control over our water system, residents who bear the brunt of longtime structural racism and disinvestment will have even less of a voice moving forward than they have now,” said Councilman Kristerfer Burnett. “The Council, which is closest to the people, will no longer be able to advocate changes to the water system. We must maintain authority over our water systems, and hold those in power accountable when issues or negligence occurs.”
Since the emergency legislation passed, the process for selecting task force members and scheduling public meetings has been murky, raising fears that the ultimate goal is to drive through unpopular and undemocratic changes that threaten the viability and value of the city’s most valuable publicly owned asset.
Advocates recently learned of the existence of a Request for Proposals (RFP) to draft a report on behalf of the task force; the bid deadline was set for today at noon. The bulk of the work of the Task Force will be assigned to this consultant. The RFP outlines a tentative timeline for the Task Force, indicating that it will have just four meetings over the months of September and October before proposing a new governance structure for the water and sewer system, the city’s largest asset.
While efforts to ‘regionalize’ water systems come with promise of reducing costs and increasing efficiency, there are high profile cases in cities like Detroit and Birmingham that illustrate the serious problems with this approach. Advocates fear that a state-created regional authority could strike down water affordability programs, weaken protections against water shutoffs, and promote harmful privatization efforts.
“The Baltimore Water Regionalization Task Force must carefully study the challenges facing Baltimore’s water and sewer system as well as the impacts of any proposed changes on Black residents and low-income ratepayers,” said David Wheaton, Economic Justice Policy Fellow with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Past water regionalization efforts have hurt Black communities similar to Baltimore. For example, the regionalization of Detroit’s utility system deepened water and sewer insecurity and racial inequities.”
“In the past few years, DPW has made enormous improvements, but a regional water authority would supersede local laws and eliminate beneficial programs and resources like Water4All and the Office of the Water Customer Advocate. We can’t let this push to regionalize our system lead to us throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Rianna Eckel, Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Mayor Scott, Governor Moore, and Senate President Ferguson must appoint leaders to the task force that will fight to ensure that the progress we’ve made is not progress lost, and that Baltimore City retains the authority to ensure that we’re able to guarantee the right to safe, affordable, public water.”
As the process of selecting Task Force members continues, local organizations have reiterated their demand that individuals are selected who represent low-income ratepayers and union workers. Advocates fear that these important constituencies being left off the task force can result in perilous outcomes.
“City employees deserve to have a seat at the table for any discussion involving the future of their work,” said Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, President of the City Union of Baltimore. “The proposed task force will be charged with making recommendations that can dictate the status and nature of city employees’ jobs. Workers not having a voice in the discussion is anti-democratic and flies in the face of the values of the esteemed elected officials responsible for this task force.”
In addition, advocates want the task force to conduct racial and economic equity assessments, hold public hearings and a robust comment period, and exclude privatization options that would undermine local control and conflict with water affordability laws.
“Our water and sewer system faces many challenges, but the hard truth is that there will be no quick fix or silver bullet,” said Food & Water Watch Public Water for All Director Mary Grant. “The future of our water and sewer system is far too important for a rush to judgment without any opportunity for public participation and engagement. A change in governance cannot possibly redress the decades of federal and state disinvestment in our aging system. This process must proceed with caution and care, rooted in the region’s complex histories of redlining and disinvestment in Black communities and reaching for an affirmative goal of water justice.”