BALTIMORE—Today, the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition submitted this comment, along with nearly 100 public comments from Baltimoreans, to the Department of Public Works in response to their draft regulations for the dispute resolution process mandated by the Water Accountability and Equity Act. The comments urge increased neutrality and customer fairness.
The Department of Public Works released the draft regulations last month, but the comment period on these regulations ends today. The Water Accountability and Equity Act, passed unanimously by the City Council last November, requires the Department to create a new, comprehensive dispute resolution process with the establishment of an Office of Water Customer Advocate.
The Office of the Water Customer Advocate is meant to provide a truly independent review of customer bills, as well as helping the customer solve issues with water bills, access to assistance programs and related problems. The Advocate is meant to provide transparency, public input, and solutions to systemic problems through regular public hearings before the Committee on Oversight. These critical accountability measures are entirely absent from the DPW rules.
In addition to the draft regulations, Acting Director Garbark released a letter he sent to Chairwoman Middleton following an informational hearing on the WAEA’s implementation, as well as an implementation overview.
In the letter, he requests to change the affordability program in the WAEA to be a flat rate discount, not a percentage of income billing program. This request directly goes against the WAEA’s legislative intent to make water bills affordable for all households based on their incomes, it is a fiscally irresponsible option for the city which cannot collect money that doesn’t exist from low-income residents, and it excludes renters who already cannot afford increased water rates. Garbark also requests to rework the tenant-specific provisions and to extend the implementation deadline by up to a year to provide assistance to tenants. In the midst of an economic crisis for many families, it is even more urgent that the Department implement this legislation by the July 13, 2020 deadline.
Baltimore Right to Water Coalition Member Quotes:
“It is crucial that this new dispute resolution process change the business as usual for DPW, and create a truly new, accountable, dispute resolution process, said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer, Food & Water Watch. “Baltimoreans deserve more than opaque, unilateral decision making from the Department of Public Works on water bills that could potentially cost them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. We pushed to pass the Water Accountability & Equity Act to change these problems, and the Department needs to do its fair share of the work to implement this legislation strongly.”
“The lack of workable regulations and the Acting Director’s request to scrap key parts of the legislation unfortunately continue DPW’s obstruction of change, which we saw throughout the legislative process,” said Zafar Shah, attorney at the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore-based civil legal aid organization and member of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition. “Under Mr. Chow and now Mr. Garbark, DPW has shown time and again a lack of urgency to ensure fairness for renters who pay water bills. We should not be surprised that the proposed regulations include zero details on how DPW will change its culture of denying renters’ access to billing disputes, appeals, and discounts. Even in a pandemic, renters are currently unable to access discounts without a friendly landlord by their side.”
While we were thrilled in the unanimous passage of the Water Accountability and Equity Act earlier this year, it is clear that the work is not done,” added Molly Amster, Baltimore Director of Jews United for Justice, a local organization which advocates for social, racial and economic justice in the region and a member of the Right to Water Coalition. “We are frustrated and disappointed, but not surprised, that the Department of Public Works has continued in their attempts to weaken the accountability and affordability programs the law requires them to create. Baltimore City residents, and in particular renters, deserve to have the WAEA programs run as intended. The programs' regulations must lead to the fairness, equity and accountability that Baltimore City residents, and our elected officials, have been asking for.”
“The people of Baltimore have already suffered for much too long from patently unfair billing practices and the absence of accountability from this part of their government,” said Jaime Lee, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “The WAEA is already law, and that law should not be ignored or broken. It is past time for DPW to get started on the hard work.”