Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Editorial Advisory Board: Baltimore’s water bill crisis

Baltimore city’s water bill crisis has several sources, among the chief ones a 2002 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. The consent decree mandated that Baltimore address its aging water infrastructure and make improvements. Regulations implemented by the federal government after Sept. 11, 2001, requiring water reservoirs across the country to have covered storage, have led to substantial construction projects. The city is committed to these tasks, but at a price to city residents.

According to then-City Council President — now Mayor — Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the city has obligated residents to pay at least $1.7 billion in revenue bond debt for the next 30 years to cover the Department of Public Works’ responsibilities in attending to this massive water infrastructure project and connected obligations. Consequently, water bills for city residents have risen dramatically.

In January, the city’s Board of Estimates voted an additional 30% water rate increase over three years — an average of $8 per month per bill, according to the Department of Public Works — to take effect July 1. This increase is in addition to another 30% increase enacted in 2016. These two hikes came on top of other rate increases of more than 126% in the preceding 10 years.

According to a statement by Mayor Young, the United Nations and the EPA considers a household’s water bill affordable if it is no more than 2% to 3% of that household’s annual gross income. According to a 2016 analysis of all 198 neighborhoods in the city, water bills are not affordable for median-income households in 64 areas – or 33% of all city neighborhoods. For households making from $15,000 to $30,000 annually, water is affordable in only five of the city’s neighborhoods.

Unpaid water bills are the cause, in part, of the increased number of tax sales of homes across the city. In the last General Assembly, a bipartisan effort led to the passage of the Water Taxpayer Protection Act of 2019, approved by the governor last month and making permanent the provisions of a 2018 law. The new law takes effect on July 1.

The law amends Tax Property, Secs. 14-811(b) and 14-849.1, and prohibits any tax sale of city homes when the total taxes on the property are less than $750. The measure also prohibits any tax sale of residential property as long as the only unpaid charges are for water and sewer service. We call upon the Department of Finance to follow the General Assembly’s intent and implement this legislation. During the previous moratorium, the department tacked water bills onto delinquent property taxes to bring a property over the $750 threshold — and then put that property up for tax sale. We do not support such actions. However, the city still grapples with delinquent water bills — despite several assistance programs for residents — of between 50% to 60% each year, according to city figures.

With this legislation, the city will face a decrease of at least $5 million annually in water and sewer collections, according to the Department of Public Works. By contrast, in 2017, through the threat of foreclosure and the potential of tax sale, the city recovered $9.3 million in delinquent water and sewer charges prior to tax sale. The city also recovered $6.4 million at tax sale. In the fiscal and policy note for the legislation, the city reported that there are more than 18,000 residential properties with an unpaid water and sewer obligation of at least $750 that have been outstanding for at least 270 days, amounting to $61.6 million. Now the city has to wrestle with that problem — because tax sales of city residential property over delinquent water bills are no longer the answer.

However, the Water Taxpayer Protection Act might not resolve the issue of the poorest city residents struggling with unpaid water and sewer bills. Hence, a City Council bill moving forward headed by now-Mayor Young — the Water Accountability and Equity Act.

This act would accomplish five major objectives:

* Establish a water-for-all credit: Using the credit calculation formula, a family of four with an annual income of $25,000 and an annual water bill of $860 would receive an annual credit of $110;

* Establish a pathway for households to address their water debt by allowing each monthly payment (through the program) to also count toward their unpaid water bills;

* Create “customer advocates” who will be empowered to investigate and adjust customer bills as appropriate;

* Designate appeals officers to adjudicate water bill disputes; and

* Require the Department of Public Works to report semi-annually on key metrics related to participation in the water bill program.

The City Council has begun to consider the Water Accountability and Equity Act. (No date has been scheduled yet for a vote.) This board does not take a position on all provisions of the act. But it is obvious that the city must find a middle ground concerning the water bill crisis – such as going after businesses that have unpaid water bills, not just after residents. The city needs a concrete, manageable solution.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur Fergenson did not take part in this editorial.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Martha Ertman (on sabbatical)

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Michael Hayes

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.