Baltimore previously approved three water rate increases, which are scheduled to take occur over a period of time. The second planned water rate increase was imposed on Saturday, driving the monthly bill up by about $7 to $84.
The estimated 9 percent increase has sparked fresh debate on how to protect Baltimore’s poorest residents, who still have access to affordable water. Bay restoration and stormwater fees are not increasing.
The third increase, scheduled to take effect sometime next summer, will double the price of water over the past eight years. Advocates feel that seniors are feeling the brunt of the increases, because of the method utilized by the water department to calculate discounts.Baltimore’s century-old water infrastructure and sewage system will cost the city over $2 billion for federally required repairs. The water rate increases are necessary to compensate for these costs, officials say.
Certain members of the City Council and advocates complain that the brunt of the expenses fall on low-income residents.
Councilman Bill Henry is working with Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young to draft legislation that would put a cap on water bills based on residents’ income. He said the extra money is needed to repair the old pipes, but people should not be left behind just because they cannot afford to pay their monthly water bill.
“We need to figure out how we are going to take care of the people living amongst us who otherwise can’t afford the daily obligations of life,” Henry said.
When Baltimore residents do not pay their water bill over a period of time, the city will sell the right to collect the debt to an investor at the annual tax sale. The investor may or may not give the resident an opportunity to pay the debt, before foreclosing on the property.
The Department of Public Works will step it up a notch to help seniors and poor residents, by expanding a grant program that helps people pay their overdue water bills and increasing the income threshold for low-income senior discounts. Water bill customers are also being encouraged to monitor their usage through an online billing tool provided by the Department of Public Works.
The Department “is committed to making sure that our low-income customers receive the help they need to pay their water bills,” Director of Public Works, Rudolph S. Chow said.
On Saturday, the annual grant for poor residents will increase from $197 to $216 to match the water rates. Seniors who meet the income threshold, which was also increased from $30,000 to $30,600, will qualify for a 43 percent discount on their sewer and water rate.
Tens of thousands of low-income customers would probably qualify for the discount programs offered by the water department, according to an investigation by The Baltimore Sun. However, those customers have never enrolled in the programs.