Water rate proposal is just plumb mean

April 01, 2000|By Rob Kasper

ON A WARM DAY, I pulled the garden hose out of winter storage, washed the cars and began chanting "self-sustaining operation."

That is a phrase I heard as the price of water, along with the spring onions, shot up. This week Baltimore officials proposed increasing the water and sewer rates, an increase that affects the city and five surrounding counties tapped into the water supply.

I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of municipal water management. But at home, I preside over the pipes. As part of my labors, I have become familiar with various faucets and valves in our home -- and with the explanation given by officials every time the price of water goes up. This year the proposed increase for Baltimore is 17 percent. In 1998, the rates went up 8 percent. In 1996, the jump was 19 percent.

Over the years, I have learned that I can remain calm and even work up some enthusiasm for water rate increases by chanting certain phrases.

One of the phrases is "self-sustaining operation." That is how officials describe the Water and Waste Water Utility Funds that supply the money for the water system. As I understand it, a "self-sustaining operation" is one that pays its bills without borrowing money. I think that is a good way to run a business. I also think it is a fine way to run a household.

So the other day, as I washed the car, I chanted "self-sustaining operation" and tried to use the phrase in a sentence.

Here is what I came up with: "Boss, water rates are going up 17 percent, I need a raise to make my household a self-sustaining operation."

I also chanted, "Can you believe it? Lowest water rates in the Northeast." That is what Baltimore city water officials claim every time they propose another rate increase.

Somehow chanting this seemingly soothing phrase did not have a calming effect on me. First of all, it raised the question of credibility. The survey on water rates, as I recall, was conducted by the same department that was now asking for a rate increase. Relying on a water company to report the results of a water rate survey is like relying on a candidate to report the result of a poll measuring his popularity.

Something else bothered me. Namely, if we are so proud of our low water rates in Baltimore, why are we trying to push them in other direction? By raising water rates three times since 1996, we seem to be sending the message that we want to abandon our low-rate past. I rinsed off the hood of the car, stopped chanting and started sulking. I began to feel like a kid who thinks his mom loves other kids in the family more than him. I had read in a newspaper story that while water rates would rise 17 percent in the city, where I live, the rate increase would likely be less for folks living in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. The accompanying explanation -- the counties buy water from the city at bulk rates -- made no sense to me. The only explanation I bought was that the water company liked the people in the suburbs more than us city-dwellers.

But as I finished washing the car and rolled up the hose, I thought of a way to work up some sympathy, if not support, for the guys running the waterworks.

I recalled that the waterworks guys have had a few problems lately. Back in February, for instance, they had to tell the folks living in the center section of the city not to drink to the tap water without boiling it. They were worried that about 1.5 million gallons of water had not been properly filtered at the Ashburton Water Filtration Plant. I also recalled that back in May of 1998, a 60-inch water pipe burst in East Baltimore, wiping out some 15 houses.

When I remembered these troubles, the request for the increase in water rates made sense to me. The waterworks guys are trying to fix an aging plumbing system by throwing money at it. That is a practice every homeowner understands.

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