Water rates increase in city Board of Estimates approves 19 percent rise in use fee

'Best, cheapest water'

Pratt seeks allowance for residents living on fixed incomes

April 25, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Everything is getting more expensive these days, even a drink of water.

In Baltimore, top city officials yesterday approved raising water and sewer fees by 19 percent, or about $60 a year for an average household.

"What you're going to see is about a $5-a-month increase for some of the best and cheapest water in the country," said Dave L. Montgomery, Baltimore's deputy public works director.

The rate increase, the first in four years, goes into effect today. It affects commercial and industrial as well as residential customers.

Public Works officials said the increase is needed to cover increased operating costs and to maintain reserves for the Water and Waste Water Utility Funds, self-sustaining enterprises that operate independently and have combined annual budgets of $171 million.

Even with the increase, Mr. Montgomery said, Baltimore's water and sewer charges are below those of many surrounding counties and of Philadelphia, Richmond and Washington.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt was the only official on the Board of Estimates to vote against the rate increase. The five-member panel, made up of top elected and appointed officials, must approve most of the city's financial transactions.

Asserting herself after being engulfed in controversy for several weeks, Ms. Pratt objected to raising the water and sewer rate on short notice, saying there was no time to work out a discount plan for seniors and people living on fixed incomes.

She announced she would undertake a performance audit of the city's Bureau of Water and Waste Water to look for savings.

"I'm opposed to the increase because I was told consumption is down and expenses are up," she said. "My concern is, are we operating efficiently?"

She pledged a thorough review, which will take about six months, to assess purchasing procedures, operating expenses, collections, equipment and other areas.

Ms. Pratt's vigorous advocacy of the public interest cast her in a different light from a few weeks ago. The first-term comptroller was under siege for appointing her campaign manager and close friend Julius Henson to a $79,400 job overseeing the city's $3.2 billion real-estate portfolio.

Yesterday, Ms. Pratt and City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III questioned pushing through the increase, proposed in February, a week after many seniors complained at a hearing that they could not afford it.

But city finance officials warned a delay would have hurt Baltimore's bond ratings.

The board agreed to re-evaluate the fees after Ms. Pratt's audit and to come up with a discount plan for struggling elderly homeowners that doesn't greatly increase the burden on other residents and businesses.

Under the increase, water and sewer charges for a typical dwelling with more than two occupants would rise from $76.79 per quarter, or $307.16 a year, to $91.38 per quarter, or $365.52 a year. The figures are based on usage of 324 gallons a day.

The same dwelling in Howard County would pay $445 a year; in Washington, $447; and in Baltimore County, $597.

With brief discussion, the board approved refunding $5.5 million in real estate taxes to the owners of the USF&G Tower. The board agreed to give former Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean $28,914 in back pay that was withheld when she went on leave in December 1993 in a corruption scandal. After taxes, she will receive $14,386.

Mrs. McLean, who resigned from office six months later, was convicted of stealing more than $25,000 in taxpayer funds and official misconduct charges.

City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, noting that she had repaid the money, said, "We have no basis, at least no legal basis, for withholding the money."

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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