Water rates to rise City plans increase of 8% to maintain emergency fund

May 20, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Activities such as bathing, washing cars, watering lawns and flushing toilets are likely to get more expensive this summer, with the city planning to raise water and sewer rates for the second time in little more than two years.

Baltimore's Department of Public Works is asking for an 8 percent increase in sewer and water rates for city residents. The price of water that the city sells to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties would also rise by 8 percent, but the local governments may decide whether to pass on the increase to consumers.

For city residents, the increase expected to take effect July 1 would mean an increase of about $29 over the $368 a year for water and sewer service for an average household of four people.

Public Works Director George G. Balog said the increase is essential to maintain the level of reserve funds for water and sewer operations -- money that covers emergency needs.

Balog said it is city policy to hold 8 percent of the money generated from water and sewer rates in reserve -- about $12 million. State law requires a minimum of 4 percent held back for the reserve fund.

Baltimore bills county governments for the water their jurisdictions draw from the city system, and it is up to them to adjust the rates charged to users. Some county public works directors said yesterday that the city's action could force a rate increase.

James Irvin, director of Howard County's Department of Public Works, said water rates there will likely rise by 5 percent or 6 percent. About 90 percent of the county's water comes from the city.

In Baltimore County, where most people rely on city water and rates for water and sewer rose 10.5 percent last year, administration spokesman Michael H. Davis said, "Our rates are not going up."

Though the expected city increase would cost Anne Arundel County an extra $104,000, a rate increase is not planned for this year, said James Hurley, a deputy public works director there.

In Carroll County, only about 6,000 of about 50,000 households use city water -- which the county purchases, untreated, at a wholesale rate and processes locally, according to J. Michael Evans, the county public works director. He said the approximate $10,000 cost of the increase might not affect users' rates.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said yesterday that she thinks public works' calculations of water and sewer rates are flawed.

Last year, city auditors in her office found that the Public Works Department was overcharging metropolitan-area residents by about 2 percent -- about $8 a year for the average customer.

That audit, spearheaded by Pratt, reported that the Bureau of Water and Waste Water was double-billing the cost of overhead and underestimating revenues to justify a 19 percent increase imposed in April 1996. Auditors say the increase should have been no more than 17 percent.

Pratt called last year for the Public Works Department to scrap the way it calculates water rates, and the mayor promised that public works would consult the audit department before another increase proposal.

"I'm really disgusted because the mayor had instructed DPW to work with the audit department," Pratt said.

Water and sewer rates are based on projections of future use -- formerly made every four years. But last year, Dave L. Montgomery, deputy city public works director, said the department would begin conducting the review every two years to be more accurate. This year marks the first review during the new cycle.

The city increased its water and sewer fees 18 percent in 1989, and 14 percent in 1992. Balog said yesterday that Baltimore's water and sewer rates are lower than those of any other large city in the Northeast.

The city's Board of Estimates is expected to schedule a public hearing for 9 a.m. June 24 so residents can comment on the planned rate increase.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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