By Jackie Filson
Three years of grassroots work later, a cutting-edge piece of water justice legislation in Baltimore has finally advanced.
The History of Baltimore Water Justice
In 2016, community members outraged by widespread issues with unaffordable and incorrect water bills formed the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition. Since then, the group has worked tirelessly to pass legislation that would mandate a more just and accessible public water program. They want to cap water bills for low-income households at a level they can afford to pay based on their income and provide a vital problem-solving framework to resolve customer disputes.
The bill, named the Water Accountability and Equity Act, was introduced in 2018 by then-Council President Jack Young. Since introduction, it has garnered across-the-board support from Baltimoreans and city leaders with only one main obstacle: the leadership of the Department of Public Works (DPW). The legislation has had a public hearing and two work sessions while in committee.
The Obstacles to Baltimore Water Justice
DPW has refused to consider the legislation every step of the way, evaded meetings with water justice advocates, and withheld important data. Meanwhile, water rates in Baltimore have continued to grow exponentially, and residents have continued to receive incorrect bills with pending resolutions.
The coalition has worked diligently to find common ground with DPW but has received minimal feedback and general neglect.
Eventually, DPW even drafted their own much weaker legislation that would help fewer Baltimoreans at a higher cost.
DPW’s “BH2O Assists” and “BH2O Assist Plus” programs (which sounds alarmingly like the “H2O Help to Others” program run by the largest investor-owned water company in the US) do not provide income-based bills and thus would leave water bills unaffordable for the nearly 30 percent of Baltimore households making less than $25,000 a year. They would also fail to reach and serve the vast majority of renters, who comprise 53 percent of Baltimore households. In fact, under their programs, renters are required to obtain express permission from the homeowner, adding another roadblock to affordable and accountable water for renters.
According to estimates from the City Council President’s Office, compared to BH2O Assists, the Water-for-All affordability program is projected to cost $19 million less over 5 years and serve an additional 3,000 people because it customizes bills to match what households need instead of providing a flat discount.
The Current Status of Baltimore Water Justice
At the second work session for the bill, four months after the initial committee hearing, DPW dropped 14 pages of late-in-the-game, last-minute amendments despite claiming they would have none up until the night before. DPW is trying to undermine legislation that would save them money, increase transparency, and create affordable rates for low-income families.
However, the City Council is standing strong for Baltimoreans and moved the comprehensive Water Accountability and Equity Act through committee during this work session after months of delaying for DPW —> and every member of the committee voted favorably.
The bill is now one HUGE step closer to becoming a reality despite DPW’s best efforts.
How to Improve Baltimore Water Justice
When passed, the bill will do two top-line and revolutionary things for Baltimore’s public water system:
Establish a water affordability program to help all low-income families, including renters who make up a majority of the city and are currently denied assistance no matter their income;
Create a new independent Customer Advocate’s Office to work with customers to address billing concerns.
Last month, DPW announced a new appeals process through the City’s Environmental Control Board, but the regulations fail to provide independent decision making as they give DPW Director Rudy Chow a final say over every stage of dispute resolution, and they omit critical timelines for reaching a resolution.
Director Chow has proven himself to be incompetent at addressing billing concerns, and now he’s opposing oversight.