Board considers lifting ban on shutting off water service

May 04, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Delinquent water bills have reached the $8 million mark, forcing Baltimore leaders to consider lifting an eight-year ban on shutting off service.

News of the rising delinquencies surfaced yesterday before the city Board of Estimates approved a 19 percent water rate increase and 15 percent sewer rate increase for city customers effective today. The average Baltimore water user will see his yearly water and sewer bills rise a total of $66 per year, paying $115.09 per quarter.

City Council President Sheila Dixon was the sole dissenting vote among the five-member spending board that includes Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.

Dixon said the city can't afford to further burden a citizenry leaving Baltimore at a pace close to 1,000 per month. "I have a problem with more taxes on the citizens of Baltimore," Dixon said. "Next, we'll be losing people because of the water rate."

The proposed increases agitated users facing higher bills, but city Department of Public Works Director George Winfield blamed the increase on more stringent water and wastewater standards imposed by state and federal governments.

The city has embarked on $120 million in improvements to its Ashburton and Montebello plants and to Loch Raven Dam, Winfield said. In September, the city reached an agreement with federal and state environmental regulators in a lawsuit over water pollution from the city's Ashburton plant and the Patapsco sewage treatment plants. The agreement included Baltimore pledging $2.5 million to correct the problems.

Winfield said the city is considering shutting off water service to delinquent customers. Since banning shut-offs in 1992, the city delinquency rate has risen 20 percent to about 10,000 customers, according to Louise G. Green, chief of the city's Bureau of Treasury Management.

The city water rate increase could affect up to 1.6 million customers. The city sells water to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. This week, Howard County increased water bills an average of $30 per year for its 54,000 users. Anne Arundel County officials said they would absorb the costs.

Remaining counties say they are assessing whether the city increase will affect their rates.

Matthew L. Kimball, an attorney for the Building Owners and Managers Association, said the water rate increase will result in a drop in city tax revenues. Kimballsaid city business assessments are based on income.

Using an unnamed building as an example, Kimball said the $70,000 yearly water and sewer bill would rise about $13,300, which would remove about $866 in tax revenue. "In effect, you're robbing Peter to pay Paul," Kimball said.

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