Photos of the event available here: https://fwwat.ch/waeahearing
On Thursday evening, Mayor Young’s Water Accountability & Equity Act received remarkable local testimony at a hearing before Baltimore’s Taxation, Finance, and Economic Development Committee. A wide range of residents, local business owners, religious leaders, and lawmakers have vocalized their support for this monumental effort to fix the city’s water billing system.
The bill, which establishes an income-based ‘Water-For-All Affordability Program’ for low-income residents and creates an ‘Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals’ to assure a fair process for customers who need to resolve billing problems, was introduced by Mayor Jack Young last December and cosponsored by every member of the city council.
Attendees heard testimony from an expert panel, affected community members and small business owners, and a number of advocates from different issue areas. Their personal stories provided a lens into how heinously expensive water bills can devastate low-income residents, many of whom have recently seen their homes added to the tax sales list. Kimberly Armstrong, a lifelong Baltimore resident whose mortgage has more than doubled thanks to erroneous water bills, was one of those who testified.
“There is still no way for me to effectively get my erroneous $5,000 water bill adjusted,” Armstrong said. “As a lifetime resident of Baltimore City, I encourage the City Council to pass this bill to help people like me who are facing severe burdens due to absurdly high, and incorrect, water bills and resist any weakening amendments offered by the Department of Public Works.”
Baltimore’s water infrastructure is one of many aging systems in industrial cities across the United States, and the city’s fight for justice and equity may foreshadow what’s to come for much of the country. Last November, in a move that made national headlines, Baltimore residents voted to ban the privatization of water resources in the city. Now, they’re fighting to protect the system they saved.
Once passed, the act will not only cap water bills based on income to protect residents from unaffordable water bills, it will also empower Baltimore water customers and provide them an opportunity to address incorrect water bills with the Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals.
Reverend Keith Bailey, whose church was sent to tax sale because of an incorrect water bill and predatory water liens, also testified before the committee.
“Sending churches and community members overly high, incorrect water bills is a common occurrence in our city,” Reverend Bailey stated. “Even now that state legislation has ensured water bills are removed from the tax sale process in Baltimore, I fear families will still face other cruel collections methods for erroneous bills. The creation of the Water-Customer Advocate’s office will provide an incredible service to everyone in our city.”
“Water is a human right,” said Rianna Eckel, Food & Water Watch Senior Maryland Organizer. “Director Rudy Chow brands DPW as a strong proponent of the vitality of our communities, but he has repeatedly abandoned Baltimore residents to handle unaffordable and incorrect water bills on their own. This is clumsy and inhumane. The Department can’t be trusted to handle affordability and accountability on their own anymore, it’s time to restore public trust in our water billing system by passing this legislation.”
Molly Amster, Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice, said “Jews are commanded to work to ensure that all people have what our Torah calls dei machsoro, resources sufficient for their needs. JUFJ is thrilled that this legislation would extend affordability assistance to Baltimore renters, who are currently ineligible for financial assistance for water. As rates skyrocket and tenants are routinely evicted for unpaid water bills, it is critical that we pass this important legislation, and we are grateful to Mayor Young for his leadership.”