Baltimore water bills could rise by 15 percent

Customers of Baltimore's water system would see their water bills go up 15 percent — more than expected — under a proposal the Department of Public Works announced Monday.

The projected rate hike follows years of increases and will bring a typical customer's annual bill to nearly $800, up from about $500 a decade ago, city officials said.

Public works officials had previously said an increase of about 12 percent might be needed for the year that begins July 1. They said Monday the 15 percent increase is necessary to meet state and federal mandates, accelerate plans to replace aging water lines that frequently break and update meter and billing systems.

But the plan drew protests from some city residents and a member of the City Council.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the proposal "absolutely not affordable," especially at a time when the city also is imposing a new storm water fee to support Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Under that fee, single-family homes in the city would be charged $48 to $144 a year to pay for projects to reduce pollution from runoff.

"This is asking too much for people to bear," Clarke said. "This is a crushing blow, especially to low-income homeowners, of which we have many — elderly, disabled and just plain low-income. This is how you lose your house, by not being able to pay your water bills."

Linda Stewart, a Curtis Bay activist known to many as "Water Bill Woman," said she is frustrated by the constant rate increases. Stewart said the public might be willing to pay more if they could see improvements in return, such as the installation of new water meters to address widespread billing errors that overcharged customers by millions.

"What I am seeing is, nothing has changed," Stewart said. "I understand what needs to be done — at one point I was OK with the water bill being increased." But, she said, "they are not being accountable. They keep saying they're going to do this and this and this, and we need to see proof."

Baltimore's water system directly serves 410,000 residential and commercial customers, about half of them in Baltimore County. Officials said the city would "pass along" the increase to Baltimore County, and officials there would decide what to bill those customers. A county spokeswoman could not say Monday what the county would do.

The increase must be approved by the Board of Estimates, the city's five-member financial oversight panel controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. A public hearing is scheduled for June 26.

The mayor is reviewing the proposal, her spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said.

"Over the last three years, the city has been working hard to increase preventative maintenance, speed emergency repairs, and improve customer service — all while struggling to comply with unfunded federal mandates," O'Doherty said in a statement.

He noted that the mayor serves as co-chairwoman of the water council of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and continues to push for increased federal support to cities.

In describing the impact of the proposed increase, Public Works officials acknowledged they have significantly reduced their figure for an average family's water bill. They said that in the past, they overestimated the number of gallons used daily.

The city raised its fee for water and sewer service by 9 percent last year. Since 2000, water rates have increased in the city every year by at least 9 percent, with the exception of two years.

Under the department's three-year plan, water and sewer bills will increase by 11 percent a year from now and another 11 percent the year after that.

Rudolph Chow, director of the city's Bureau of Water and Wastewater, said the proposed rate increase jumped from 12 percent to 15 percent as budget projections were adjusted to more accurately reflect various initiatives, such as boosting customer service resources and creating an asset management division.

Chow said one sign of progress in the city's water system is a drastic decrease in the number of missed meter readings. Since the 2010 fiscal year, the number of missed readings dropped from more than 76,000 to fewer than 2,000.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, a member of the Board of Estimates who voted against the rate increase last year, said she has concerns about the Public Works plan but hasn't decided whether she will vote for the increase. Pratt voted against the rate hike last year, citing the system's billing problems.

"I do have some concerns," she said Monday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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