Water, sewer rates in region raised 8% by Baltimore board 2nd increase in 2 years also affects area counties

June 25, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Businesses and residents in the Baltimore region will pay more for turning on their faucets after the city approved an 8 percent water and sewer rate increase yesterday, the second in two years.

The city's Board of Estimates approved the increase, effective immediately, by a 3-2 vote. The city provides water service to 1.6 million area residents, including those in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

Officials in most counties have said they should be able to absorb the increase without passing it on to customers, but the rate increase is expected to raise bills in Howard County -- which gets 90 percent of its water from the city -- by 6 percent.

Public works officials requested the increase at the recommendation of city financial officers who expressed concern over the department's lack of cash reserves, threatening its ability to borrow money.

Even with the increase, public works officials presented evidence to the board showing that the city has the lowest residential water and sewer rates in the region, and the lowest commercial service charges in the nation.

The average homeowner, who pays about $91 quarterly, will pay $7.31 more -- almost $30 per year -- under the increase. Two years ago, the city raised water rates 19 percent.

Several industrial water users, including Domino, are concerned. Gene Q. Eng, Domino's process development manager, told board members that his company pays an annual water bill of $700,000. The increase will translate into $56,000 more, equal to the salaries of at least two employees.

"It reduces the competitiveness of remaining in Baltimore," Eng said.

Paul R. Gartelmann of Millennium Inorganic Chemicals said his company's annual water bill is $1.3 million. The latest increase, combined with the one two years ago, will cost his company $350,000 more annually.

"Our industry is in a global market that mandates we be as cost-conscious as possible," Gartelmann said.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and Council President Lawrence A. Bell III voted against the increase. Pratt recently criticized the way the department calculates its rate, saying an audit by her department showed metropolitan-area residents were being overcharged by 2 percent, or $8 per year.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson and Finance Director William R. Brown Jr. voted in favor of the increase. Schmoke again directed the Public Works Department to work with auditors to resolve the dispute over how the rate is calculated.

City Public Works Director George G. Balog presented the board with a survey conducted last year by Los Angeles Water and Power, which ranked Baltimore as having the lowest average commercial bill -- $30,111 -- among 25 U.S. cities.

Balog also noted a Public Works Department survey showing the average quarterly city water and sewer charge of $91 to be the lowest in the region, compared with a high of $180 in Carroll County.

Department surveys also show the city residential bill to be the lowest of major northeastern cities.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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