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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

by Fern Shen8:36 pmJan 8, 20190

Raise Baltimore water rates again? Justify it!

City Council members call for an independent study before the spending board approves another big rate hike

Above: From left, City Council members Shannon Sneed, Yitzy Schleifer, Zeke Cohen, Bill Henry and Kristerfer Burnett joined with advocates to call for more transparency as the city prepares to raise water and sewer rates once more. (Fern Shen)

On the eve of a 30% water rate hike coming before Baltimore’s spending board tomorrow, City Council members have demanded an independent rate study, calling the increase “unfair and irresponsible.”

“A 30% increase over three years without any kind of study to justify it?” Councilman Zeke Cohen said today. “Every single day I hear from my constituents who are right on the margins, saying, ‘If rates go up by 30%, I don’t think I can afford to live in Baltimore any more.’”

The city should not continue to make residents pay for Baltimore’s failure over decades to maintain aging water and sewer infrastructure without scrutiny, Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said, standing outside City Hall with fellow lawmakers and advocates for water customers.

“We have a responsibility to see what we can do to eliminate that burden,” he said. “Not just turn around and say, ‘Oh, mistakes were made in the past – now you citizens have to pay for it.’”

“Freeze this increase,” Schleifer said, “until we do a deep dive into all the factors and the unintended consequences.”

Cohen said he has already asked for the rate hike to be postponed in a December 21 letter to Department of Public Works director Rudy Chow.

But Chow – who sits along with Mayor Catherine Pugh as one of the five members of the Board of Estimates set to vote on the rate hike – never replied to him, Cohen said.

Chow’s spokesman has not yet responded to a request from The Brew for comment.

Big Projects, Bigger Water Bills

The rate hike, announced in November, would raise water rates by 9.9% each year through June 2022 and sewer rates by 9% annually. In addition, the stormwater remediation fee will increase by 9% a year through 2022.

The increases would cost the average household about $300 more by 2022, according to DPW estimates.

They come on the heels of a previous dramatic rate hike.

In 2016, city water and sewer bills began the first of three roughly 10% yearly increases, which over three years represented an increase of over 30%.

City officials have justified both increases by saying the city needs extra revenue to cover the high cost to repair aging pipes and treatment facilities that are resulting in violations of federal law.

The projects they have cited include the nearly $300 million project to install underground tanks to store drinking water currently kept in the Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton reservoirs.

$215 Million Surplus

But questions have been raised about just how much more the city needs to extract from residents to cover these repairs.

As The Brew reported last month, the city’s own documents forecast that Baltimore’s utility funds will collect $215 million in surplus money – in effect, “profits” – between now and June 2022.

The city’s own documents forecast that Baltimore’s utility funds will collect $215 million in surplus money – in effect, “profits” – between now and June 2022.

That discovery, unearthed from deep inside one of the bond buyer reports required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, raised a critical issue for Mary Grant, who directs Food & Water Watch’s “Water for All” campaign.

“We don’t know how the city arrives at its rate numbers,” Grant told The Brew at the time. “Most cities do thorough evaluations of revenue needs and projections to arrive at what their rates will be.”

Grant said she turned to agency officials to clarify the decision-making process.

DPW deputy director Kim Morton, Grant said, “indicated that they just had a meeting and decided on the rate.”

Other Cities do it

Grant and other advocates from the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition joined Cohen, Schleifer and fellow Council members Kristerfer Burnett, Bill Henry and Shannon Sneed in the call for a rate study.

Cohen said Baltimore should follow the lead of other jurisdictions – including Rockville, Harford County, Ocean City and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission – which have conducted comprehensive independent rate studies before raising rates. (Chow worked for 27 years at the WSSC.)

“These reports typically include information on cost of services, customer impact and rate design,” Cohen said. “They are also publicly available online.”

Baltimore itself has in the past provided more information to justify rate increases, Henry said.

“This is nothing new,” he observed, noting that under the previous administration, DPW officials came to the Council to provide data explaining the need for a rate increase.

“Our rates at that time were low compared to other cities,” Henry said.

Now prior rate increases, together with the proposed new one, “means an over 95% increase in the price of water over 10 years,” Schleifer said.

With ever-rising water bills posing serious hardships for city residents, more transparency and accountability are essential, said coalition member Molly Amster, of Jews United for Justice.

“We deserve to know how DPW sets our water rates,” Amster said. “And why it needs more of our money.”

 DPW could net $215 million in surplus from proposed water rate hike (12/11/18)

DPW proposes a three year, 30% increase in water and sewer rates (11/29/18)

The Druid Lake construction mess: It didn’t have to be this way (10/4/18)

Keeping Baltimore’s water system public won’t cure its accountability problems (8/6/18)

Ashburton residents revolt over tree clearing for water tank project (7/25/18)

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