Water rate increase proposed

City plans boost of 17% on average

March 30, 2000|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore proposed yesterday raising its water and sewer rates an average of 17 percent, an increase expected to ripple to 1.6 million water users in five surrounding counties.

City residents can expect their yearly water and sewer bills to rise an average of $66, and Howard County officials estimate that bills for a typical family of four in that jurisdiction would increase $30 to $40 a year. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties -- which also purchase city water -- are assessing the impact of the third city-water rate increase in as many years.

City public works and finance leaders said the increase is needed to keep the cash-strapped city's water and wastewater fund self-sustaining while trying to meet increasingly stringent federal water and wastewater regulations.

Though city studies say Baltimore business and residential rates are among the nation's lowest, the increases proposed yesterday agitated users facing higher bills.

"We're being sort of nickeled and dimed," said George Nilson, vice president of the Baltimore Homeowners Coalition. "I have a very sharp impression that city residents pay a lot more for their water than our neighbors in Baltimore County, Howard County and Anne Arundel County."

Baltimore budget officials estimated that the water and sewer bill for a city household of four would rise from the current $98.67 per quarter to about $115.09. Rate increases for the counties are expected to be less than Baltimore's because they buy city water at bulk costs.

Rates for Baltimore industries such as Domino Sugar Corp. rose 8 percent last year. The proposed increase would translate into a sewer bill increase of about $80,000 for Domino, said Gene Q. Eng, process development manager.

"It reduces our ability to compete," said Eng. Domino's water bill last year topped $700,000.

James Irvin, Howard County public works director, said county officials estimate that the current $330 water and sewer bill for a typical family of four would increase 12 percent a year.

"I do know we're going to propose an increase in Howard County," Irvin said. "We have not had an increase in five or six years out here."

Anne Arundel County buys 1.2 billion gallons of water from the city for about $1.5 million a year. The rate increases will cost the county an additional $280,000, which officials say will not be passed onto consumers.

"We're confident we can absorb those costs," said Andrew Carpenter, spokesman for County Executive Janet S. Owens.

The water and sewer increases were unveiled yesterday as part of the first city budget proposed by Mayor Martin O'Malley. His $1.9 billion spending plan would avoid a projected $20 million budget deficit next year because of $24.1 million in unexpected tax revenue, budget officials said.

The extra money will help Baltimore hold the line on property tax increases while allowing the city to spend more on schools, recreations and parks, and the state's attorney's office.

O'Malley warned that the budget projections do not include pay raises for 16,000 city workers, including police, whose contracts expire June 30. O'Malley is expected to present his final budget recommendations in two weeks.

To find money for police, the city might need to find further budget cuts, O'Malley said.

"This does not mean we are out of the woods," O'Malley said of the unexpected revenues. "We have to come up with some more money to turn around public safety and the city's future. We have to come up with more money for police raises."

As part of his election pledge to reduce crime, O'Malley wants to raise salaries for police officers. The city continues to lose officers to departments in surrounding counties, which offer higher pay.

In addition, a stalemate between the city and its two firefighter unions has caused a snag in police negotiations. A city contract provision requires police and firefighters to get the same percentage increases. The city wants to remove the parity clause from the contracts so that it can increase the police pay. The city and firefighters unions will go to Circuit Court tomorrow.

The city property tax rate would remain at $5.82 per $100 of assessed value, two times higher than that of any other jurisdiction in the state.

O'Malley is hoping to achieve further savings through recommendations of the Greater Baltimore Committee and the President's Roundtable, local business groups studying city government to increase efficiency.

Yesterday, city Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher told the city Board of Estimates that the city's projected budget shortfall was eradicated by $9.7 million more than expected on residential property tax income for the year. An additional $14.4 million more came into city coffers from utility company property that was shifted onto the city tax rolls last year by the state, Gallagher said.

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