Baltimore, MD -- Today the City Council Taxation, Finance, and Economic Development Committee held an informational hearing on the implementation of the Water Accountability & Equity Act. City Council President Brandon Scott called the hearing because DPW missed the April 13th deadline to publish regulations for the Water for All affordability program, concerning Councilmembers and advocates.
“I said this during our last hearing in March and I will say it again today,” said Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. “It is disheartening that the government that is supposed to represent, protect, and fight for the residents of Baltimore, can't even figure out how to send an accurate water bill, if one at all. We understand the delay in the implementation of this crucial program in the midst of a public health emergency, but we must still ensure we have a plan in place to implement and make the public aware of the resources they can take advantage of. We must do better.”
At the hearing, the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) acting director, Matthew Garbark, said the department is “making progress” on bill implementation, but he requested an extension of the deadline. He said DPW has formed working groups in order to implement different components of the bill and promised to publish draft rules and regulations for the Customer Advocate’s office as well as a timeline for publishing draft regulations for the Water for All program by Monday, May 4.
“As Baltimoreans are filing for unemployment in record numbers, the Department of Public Works is still asking families to wait for water affordability assistance,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer at Food & Water Action. “The Department has had years to figure this out and advocates are eager to do what it takes to help make sure the Water Accountability and Equity Actis implemented by the July 13th deadline. We thank Council President Scott, Chairwoman Middleton, and members of the committee for their commitment to implementing this crucial bill. Mayor Young needs to follow suit to stand up for our city’s most vulnerable and work to ensure that DPW does too. We’ve waited long enough.”
Additionally, the Department shared during the hearing that they conservatively estimated the costs of creating the Water-for-All program to be upwards of $30 million, nearly double the cost of Philadelphia’s similar program. The city’s estimate also assumed a 50 percent enrollment rate -- far higher than the 9,000 households currently enrolled in BH2O Assists.
DPW promised to publicly share their cost analysis in response to questions from advocates, who called into question the legitimacy of the estimate. Acting Director Garbark stated that the Department currently plans to run this complicated program in an Excel spreadsheet or other similar program, but advocates pointed out that the city’s own consultants, Raftelis, have already helped create billing software, called the Customer Assistance Management Program, to compute individualized bills for the similar program in Philadelphia. Garbark also indicated that DPW was struggling with how to allow tenants who are on master meters to be eligible for the program.
“It is great that DPW convened multiple inter-agency teams to implement the Water Accountability and Equity Act,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice. “However, it is disappointing that these teams did not include advocates or experts who shaped the legislation, which has led to incredibly inadequate suggestions for implementation, including the use of an Excel spreadsheet to administer the Water for All program. Water is a basic human right, and the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition is eager to collaborate to achieve strong implementation of this new law, which is needed now more than ever.”
The Water Accountability and Equity Act was introduced by then-Council President Jack Young in December 2018. The bill passed unanimously through the City Council on November 18th, 2019, and was signed into law by Mayor Young on January 13th, 2020.
“The law is clear now. Come July, the City must have in place all the mechanisms that ensure accurate, affordable water bills. There's no time right now for bureaucratic delay of implementation,” said Zafar Shah, Attorney with the Public Justice Center.
The bill creates the comprehensive, “Water for All” water affordability program, which caps water bills of low-income households at a percentage of income that they can afford to pay and includes a pathway out of water debt. The legislation also establishes the Office of the Customer Advocate, streamlining, and improving the water bill dispute resolution process.
“DPW indicated that they are concerned about successfully implementing this bill. However, the residents of Baltimore have continued to face unaffordable water bills. In light of the current crisis, residents cannot wait any longer,” said Amy Hennen, Director of Advocacy with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
Over one-third of Baltimoreans were already struggling with unaffordable water bills -- being billed more than the United Nations standard for affordable water service, three percent of a family’s household income. Residents will receive even larger bills in May when the Department will issue one bill to cover March and April.