Documents reveal water line repair program helped only 8 low-income water customers
Documents obtained by the Maryland Legal Aid reveal that the Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) has utilized only 2 percent of the special assistance fund set up to help low-income residents repair water infrastructure that homeowners are responsible for maintaining. The documents were released today to media sources by the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and can be accessed here and here.
In 2014, the City established the Hardship Fund for Emergency Water and Wastewater Services using proceeds from an exclusive arrangement with HomeServe, which provides optional service agreements to repair customers’ water and sewer lines on their private property. Through this contract, HomeServe is able to send their marketing materials using Baltimore’s city seal, making the solicitations appear as though they are actually coming from the city. The fund managed by HomeServe has $775,000 in allocated funds but has provided only $15,327 in assistance to low-income customers. In five years, only 8 customers have been helped.
“We requested this information through a Maryland Public Information Act request because we have struggled to have our clients enrolled in this program,” said Robin Jacobs, a Staff Attorney with Maryland Legal Aid. “We are concerned that the Department of Public Works is denying our low-income clients access to assistance that is available.”
“Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has tried for years to enroll our clients in this hardship program and we simply never heard back from the Department of Public Works,” said Amy Hennen with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Our clients are really suffering and we fear that the Department of Public Works is unjustly denying them aid. That is why we urge the city council to pass the WAEA to create a strong, independent Customer Advocate’s office that can ensure low-income households are receiving available assistance.”
The Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA), which will go to a second-reader vote before the Baltimore City Council on October 28, will create two things: an income-based water affordability program to provide assistance based on need and a new Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals to provide independent problem-solving investigations for all customers of the water and sewer system.
“The Customer Advocate would review whether customers are being unfairly denied support from the Hardship Fund and similar programs, including water bill discounts for the elderly and the ill, and the reimbursement program for sewage backups,” said Jaime Lee, Associate Professor and Director of the University of Baltimore School of Law Community Development Clinic. “Just as importantly, the Advocate would also increase transparency and propose systemic changes at DPW to help ensure that these programs aren’t just empty promises, but are actually used to improve the lives of Baltimore City residents.”
On September 26, DPW Dir. Rudy Chow introduced amendments to WAEA, which would remove the affordability program, water shutoff protections, shutoff notification requirements, and the entire Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals. In their place, Dir. Chow proposed codifying the Department’s existing assistance program and procedures as well as his new appeals process with the Environmental Control Board — none of which would provide additional relief or help to customers denied access to the Hardship Fund or the reimbursement program for sewage backups.
“Dir. Chow has proposed a complete gutting of WAEA and it is unacceptable,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director of Jews United for Justice. “His amendments undermine the principles and objectives of the legislation, attempting to deny Baltimore residents the true affordability, accountability and equity in our city’s water billing system that we deserve and is long overdue. We need the City Council to rise to the challenge, stand with the people of Baltimore, and reject his weakening amendments.”
“This new information about the Hardship Fund shows yet again Dir. Chow cannot be trusted to assist low-income water customers in Baltimore,” said Mary Grant from Food & Water Action. “On the heels of his proposed gutting of WAEA and the recent report that his department is denying 85 percent of reimbursements for sewage backups, this new data points to a trend with his leadership and a refusal to work in the interest of the people of Baltimore. Baltimore needs an independent Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals through the WAEA to inject accountability and justice into these decisions.”