For Immediate Release
Baltimore, MD -- On Monday, the Baltimore City Council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act - Modifications (#20-0626), which was introduced by Council President Brandon Scott, to restore the city’s commitment to establish comprehensive water affordability and billing protections.
The new legislation sets strong, realistic implementation timelines with benchmarks to track progress under Scott’s upcoming mayoral administration. It will get Baltimore back on track to address the city’s widespread water affordability crisis, which has only worsened after another 10% rate hike went into effect on October 1 and the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.
"This Council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act to ensure that water was affordable for all of our residents. And make sure that when you have an incorrect bill, there’s an accountable, transparent system in place that you can depend on," said Council President Brandon Scott. "Tonight’s 'Modifications' bill is about putting as many provisions of the Water Accountability and Equity Act into law before July 2021 as we can -- because we cannot wait."
The City Council unanimously passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA) in November 2019 and Mayor Jack Young signed it into law in January 2020. The WAEA is groundbreaking legislation to improve the city’s water billing practices by (1) setting up a comprehensive Water For All program to make water permanently affordable for low income families; and (2) creating a new independent Office of the Customer Advocate. However, in July, days before the Act was to go into effect, Mayor Young issued an Executive Order delaying its effective date until 30 days after the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, indefinitely blocking water protections for Baltimore.
“This legislation will get the city back on track to address our ongoing water affordability problems,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Organizer with Food & Water Action. “With the COVID-19 pandemic and financial crisis, Baltimoreans need water affordability and accountability now more than ever. We thank Council President Brandon Scott, Chairwoman Sharon Green Middleton, and the City Council for their ongoing support for affordable water for all of Baltimore, and we urge Mayor Young to sign the bill. ”
The legislation will immediately improve protections for renting families, who make up more than half of Baltimore residents, by ensuring that tenants can access assistance from DPW even when their landlords are unresponsive to requests for approval of the tenants’ participation. The legislation will also require DPW to issue notices of new tenant protections over the next 60 days after its effective date -- a period that DPW describes as tracking with their customary water billing cycle.
“This is a crucial help to City renters,” said Zafar Shah, Attorney at the Public Justice Center. “If a household is struggling right now, and their landlord won’t engage in the discount process, there’s no longer a reason for DPW to drag its feet providing the emergency assistance that Mayor Young announced last summer.”
The legislation also strengthened safeguards to assure fairer treatment of all DPW customers by specifying what data must be used to assess long-standing problems and track if progress is being made; preventing conflicts of interest and undue influence from hindering customer appeals and policy reforms; adding transparency and public input by requiring that DPW publish rules and regulations for public comment; and avoiding conflicts of interest on the Oversight Committee by replacing the DPW Director with the Mayor or another Mayoral appointee.
“Greater independence for the Customer Advocates, greater transparency in how DPW treats its customers, and greater protection against conflicts of interest all represent ‘wins’ for the people of Baltimore,” said Jaime Lee, University of Baltimore School of Law Community Development Clinic. “These are all hallmarks of good government and it is great to see these principles embraced in this legislation.”
The City Council held second and third reader votes of the legislation tonight to pass the bill and send it to the mayor’s desk, giving Mayor Young more time for his signature before December 8, the end of his term.
“In the midst of this pandemic, renters need increased access to affordability assistance and everyone needs the ability to fairly dispute incorrect bills.” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice. “We hope to see Mayor Young sign this legislation to swiftly implement the programs his Water Accountability and Equity Act established.”