Baltimore's leaders just tried to give away control over the city's public water system but we stopped them and even secured a freeze on impending water privatization schemes! For now.
Keeping the privatization industry at bay in Baltimore is a huge win for the city. Water privatization elevates corporate power in place of reliability, affordability, and local control of the human right to water.
You’ve heard us say it before: Baltimore’s water system is in crisis. If it’s not steep water bill price increases, then it’s the inequitable billing system or people losing their homes and churches for erroneous water bills.
Now, though we successfully staved it off this time, we can add a looming threat of privatization to the list of water issues Baltimoreans have to worry about.
The City just narrowly avoided a 13-word update to the City's constitution that would have given the Mayor's administration full power to lease out the publicly held water system through a "public-private partnership."
Pushed by major backlash, Mayor Pugh introduced an amendment to declare "inalienable public ownership over the water system." This makes Baltimore the first major city to prevent selling the public water system to a private company, but it is not permanent.
More On Public-Private Partnerships
Baltimore clearly needs to fix and better maintain the City's water system and infrastructure, but a public-private partnership is not the solution.
Public-private partnerships are hardly different from total privatization and similarly allow a private entity to run all or part of the water system with profit as the bottom line.
As a result, providing access to safe, affordable and clean water for all residents takes a backseat to revenue. Even worse, transaction and negotiation costs of public-private partnerships are expensive for the City. The private operators also tend to downsize the associated workforce, restrict accountability and transparency of future costs, and delay needed maintenance.
In sum: in a public-private partnership, the City is paying MORE for WORSE water service.
Pugh's Privatization Pause
To address the outcry against water privatization, Mayor Pugh then introduced yet another amendment to the charter that declared the public as having inalienable ownership over the water system, making Baltimore the first major city to ban selling the public water system to a private company.
Mayor Pugh's push for an inalienable public water system may address the current outcry against water public-private partnerships, but it is not as comprehensive as it seems.
There is still no security against other forms of water privatization and there's a serious chance the mayor, or future mayors, would consider other offers.
Already, the sharks are circling.
Suez Environment, a French water company with a concerning U.S. track record, has been courting Baltimore for several months. While Mayor Pugh would not be able to enter into Suez’s proposed 50-year lease of the system without public notice, she could still enter into a smaller contract with them.
We Need A Better Water Privatization Ban
Mayor Pugh still has a powerful stronghold over private contracting and the decision-making process for Baltimore’s water. In fact, Baltimore has one of the strongest mayor-controlled forms of government in the country.
The Board of Estimates, which make the decisions over Baltimore’s water and sewer system, is mayor-controlled. 3/5 seats of the Board are filled by the mayor , and 3/5 votes are all you need to pass anything.
It’s good that we stopped Mayor Pugh from acquiring even more power, but we can take it a step further.
We're calling for the City Council to: insert language into the one remaining charter amendment to make it harder for Mayor Pugh and future mayors to privatize, not easier.
They should amend the charter to allow public input into decisions about all forms of water privatization by requiring a public referendum on any long-term operations or management contracts, leases, or asset sales of our water and sewer system.
We dodged a serious threat, but with the Mayor’s eye on public-private partnerships, more proactive and comprehensive measures are necessary.
Samantha Nelson is a summer communications intern at Food & Water Watch.