On Monday, Baltimore City Council President Jack Young stood alongside community faith leaders, the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and Food & Water Watch to announce the introduction of the Water Accountability and Equity Act which all 14 members of the Baltimore City council have signed on to co-sponsor. This bill is a major step the Baltimore City Council is taking to improve the current public system after banning privatization.
The bill outlines a blueprint for increasing the availability, affordability, and accountability of basic water and wastewater service for the City through two topline initiatives:
- It establishes an income-based water affordability program called the ‘Water-For-All Discount Program’ for low-income residents; and
- It creates an ‘Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals’ to assure a fair process for all customers to resolve billing problems.
The effort to establish an income-based water affordability program for low-income residents in Baltimore is advancing with the introduction of this bill. A study by independent consultant Roger Colton found that water bills will become unaffordable for households in more than half the city by 2019 with the enactment of rate hikes this summer.
Based on DPW projections, Baltimore water bills will double over the next decade. A typical Baltimore household paid $898 for the water and sewer service last year. After the rate hike on July 1, 2018, this household using 6 units of water a month paid $982 a year for water and sewer service. Based on DPW’s latest request, the typical household will pay $1,284 a year by July 1, 2021. The DPW projects additional ongoing rate increases so that by July 1, 2028, this typical household bill will reach $1,819, excluding stormwater fees.
This bill will provide water credits for Baltimoreans with annual household income less than 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL). These credits will reduce their water bills down to a level they can afford to pay based on their income. The credits will be provided on a tiered basis:
- For households at or below 50% of FPL, water bills would be reduced to 1% of household income;
- For households from 50% to 100% of the FPL, water bills would be reduced to 2% of household income; and
- For households from 100 to 200% of the FPL, water bills would be reduced to 3% of household income.
- For example, a family of three, making $20,000 a year and using 6 units of water a month, would receive an annual credit of $674 a year, reducing their annual bill from $982 to $400.
The Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals will be a neutral intermediary between the Department of Public Works and Baltimoreans to promote fairness to customers dealing with water and wastewater billing disputes. The Customer Advocate would investigate the causes and solutions to water billing issues with a focus on problem-solving. Customers would have the opportunity to appeal the Customer Advocate’s decision to an appeals office. This Office would be overseen by a new 7-member Oversight Committee, comprised of the City Council President, 3 members of the City Council, the city auditor, the city inspector general, and the DPW Director.
“With water and sewer bills tripling over the last decade, and a longstanding water affordability crisis on our shoulders, I am eager and ready to introduce and sponsor the Water Accountability and Equity Act,” said Baltimore City Council President Jack Young. “As an elected official, it is my job to make sure every single Baltimorean has access to safe and affordable water, but to also make sure they have city departments accountable to the public. We’re taking action, and we’re taking action now.”
“The Water Accountability and Equity Act is the comprehensive, forward-thinking legislation that we need. We are demanding an income-based water affordability program and greater accountability to fix our deeply flawed water and sewer billing system,” said Food & Water Watch Maryland Organizer Rianna Eckel. “Food & Water Watch is thrilled to work with Council President Jack Young and many of our other elected officials to prop Baltimore up a water justice leader and prepare to pass this important bill.”
“This bill is as much about equity for water customers as it is about the right to housing. This is especially true for renters, who have had no direct relationship with DPW but can face eviction and garnishment for excessive bills,” said Public Justice Center Attorney Zafar Shah. “Getting a copy of a water bill or seeking bill adjustment is often an ordeal for City renters. This bill ends those problems. Renters will no longer be DPW's second-class customers.”
“Water is essential for life. Through our work, MVLS sees the burden that rate increases place on low-income households,” said Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service Staff Attorney Ellyn Riedl. “If rate increases continue, more customers will become delinquent, and water utilities will spend more on collections and shut-offs, while recovering less from customers. We need a system that works better for all of us. The Council President’s Bill would help create that system.”