There is an old adage, often heard in the local marinas, that a boat is nothing more than a hole in the water into which you pour money. Turns out the same could be said about Baltimore's water and sewer system — it is a money-soaking hole that puts the Queen Mary to shame.
That the city's water system is old and deteriorating is nothing new. No doubt there are pipes still in the ground that would have served Edgar Allan Poe in his day — if the notorious drinker ever had a taste for non-alcoholic beverages, that is. But that problem was apparent last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and on and on.
For more than a decade, Baltimore has been raising water rates annually by 9 percent or more. For the most part, we've grudgingly accepted those increases as the cost of keeping the city's regional water service viable and for meeting environmental requirements, including upgrades to sewage treatment. There also wasn't an alternative means of paying to replace all those century-old pipes that should have been replaced long ago, and this was the maximum increase city residents could possibly absorb.
But the latest request from the Department of Public Works to raise rates by 15 percent — two-thirds more than last year, followed by annual 11 percent increases for two years after that — is likely to meet with a flood of outrage from customers. They understand Baltimore has a problem and must meet EPA mandates, but is such a substantial rate increase — one that will raise the average customer's bill to nearly $800 annually next year — all that can be done about it?
Making matters worse is that this has not been a particularly good year for the DPW and its efforts to inspire the confidence of its customers. There have been widespread billing errors that have cost the agency millions of dollars, multiple water main breaks in the downtown and a sinkhole on Monument Street caused by a collapsed storm drain that took five months to repair.
So here's what customers see: seemingly endless rate increases and poor service (not all of which can be blamed on aging pipes). Water service amounts to a regressive tax, as rich people don't necessarily use more water. With unemployment still high and city residents already facing a new stormwater fee of $48 to $144 a year to reduce pollution from runoff, is this really the time to add to their misery?
Last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged to seek federal assistance for Baltimore and other cities facing similar challenges. But while she was right — and President Barack Obama has sought increased investment in public infrastructure as well — that lobbying hasn't actually produced much in the way of financial help.
So what are left now are questions. Is the DPW using its resources as cost-effectively as possible? There have been doubts raised about this before, particularly by the suburban counties that participate in the city's water system but have little control over it. Might customers be better served if the system was in the hands of a regional authority?
Are there other ways to raise the money needed to accelerate upgrades to the system than a rate increase? Just because the federal government has not come through doesn't mean the city can't make this a greater priority in its own spending decisions. Would it make sense to explore privatization or selling some of the system's assets?
What is the long-term plan? The mayor has noted before that raising rates alone is not sustainable over the long haul. We share the city government's view that the federal government has dropped the ball and passes along Clean Water Act anti-pollution mandates without commensurate financial aid. But that isn't likely to change in the near future.
That means Baltimore will probably have to look to the surrounding counties for cost-sharing help — and be willing to share decision-making with them, too. The city has shown some interest in this, but the devil is in the details.
Ultimately, it's likely that Baltimore will need to spend more to replace its aging water, sewer and storm water handling systems whether we like it or not. Other cities have taken similar action in recent years, and even with a 15 percent increase, Baltimore's water and sewer rates will remain competitive with other East Coast cities and cheaper than D.C. or its suburbs. But this much is clear as well: We can't keep raising water and sewer rates at this blistering pace. That may leave the DPW between the watery challenges of Scylla and Charybdis — but as Odysseus discovered, sometimes you just have to pick the best of the bad choices and take your losses.