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Hearing on water rate hike set for June

As the city comptroller criticized a plan by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to raise the water rates for Baltimore residents, Baltimore’s spending board on Wednesday set a June 26 public hearing date to discuss the three-year, 37 percent hike.

The Board of Estimates set the hearing date the day after the city’s Department of Public Works unveiled the proposed increase to the water and sewer rate. The hearing will be held at City Hall.

The increases are to begin with a 15 percent hike in fiscal year 2014, followed by an 11 percent increase in fiscal year 2015 and 2016 each.

City Comptroller Joan Pratt said that her office, which monitors and audits city budgets and spending, received the request for the water and sewer rate increases earlier this month — about two months later than normal. Her office needs at least six weeks to perform a fiscal investigation of the need for rate hikes, she said.

“We just received the calculations and we are being asked to calculate the increases in a short period of time,” Pratt said. “I have concerns about the double digit increases that the Department of Public Works wants to implement over a three-year period.”

The rate hikes will affect city residents only — and not Baltimore County residents who also use water sources controlled by city government, said Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works.

Baltimore County officials set their own water and sewage rates, he said.

The need for the rate hike stems from federal and state mandates and a consent decree signed by the city in 2002 with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment “to inspect, identify and improve the entire sanitary sewer system,” according to a DPW website.

The revenue from the rate hikes will also be used to replace aging pipes and infrastructure, which will cost about $300 million over the next five years, Kocher said. The funds will also help pay for a new metering and billing system to ensure accurate and timely billing of water and sewer use.

Regarding Pratt’s criticism of the late delivery of data to her office calculating the rate hike, Kocher said the department has provided the information on the rate hikes to city officials “and continues to work with the comptroller’s office to assist them in this review.”

The city’s rate hike proposal comes on top of a new storm water fee imposed last year by state lawmakers on Baltimore City and nine other Maryland jurisdictions, effective June 1.

The city water bill increases also come at a time when the city’s billing system for its water and sewage fees has been subjected to criticism for inaccuracy. Pratt said Wednesday that city government currently owes about $9 million in refunds to residents for overcharging them on water bills over the past five years.

“The city needs to aggressively address this issue and bill citizens accurately,” she said.