City water rates likely to increase

O'Malley notes federal mandate for sewer repairs

Vote is next month

Further increases expected yearly over next decade

March 05, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's water and sewer rates are expected to rise this year for the fifth time in seven years, and may increase every year for much of the next decade as the city faces the prospect of costly mandates from federal regulators, officials said yesterday.

The O'Malley administration is recommending a water rate increase of 16 percent and a sewer rate increase of 10 percent this year, which would translate into an increase of about $57 a year for the average family of four in the city, to $518. The new rates, scheduled to be voted on and approved next month, would affect about 1.8 million water users and 1.6 million users of the city sewer system in the greater Baltimore area.

The city Board of Estimates is expected to vote after a public hearing April 10 on this year's water and sewer rate increases. The rates would take effect April 11.

And more increases are certain: Sewer rates could more than double over the next decade, under force of an anticipated legal settlement being negotiated with regulators to address numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The settlement, which could be reached within days, would compel sweeping improvements of the sewer system at an estimated cost of $900 million.

"This is unfortunately the state of things. It's a federal mandate," Mayor Martin O'Malley said last night. He has asked that the federal government help shoulder the cost, but he has received no promises.

"I just have to shake my head that the federal government would be so uncaring about the cost of this to the residents of the city," O'Malley said. "You see, the way this thing works, the federal government does tax cuts, the state government does tax cuts, and cities are forced to tax."

The city's nearly century-old sewers have long been troubled by overflows that have dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department, joined by state regulators, have threatened to file a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act unless the city agrees to fix those problems quickly.

Regulators have proposed that the city make the improvements in less than a decade, but at a meeting Feb. 15, O'Malley pleaded for more time, which would allow for smaller rate increases.

On Friday, the latest deadline from regulators, the city made a counterproposal, O'Malley said. The mayor said he hasn't heard back yet.

"We all know we need to do the work," O'Malley said. "We would like to be able to settle it in such a way that people aren't gouged over the next few years to pay for an infrastructure improvement that's going to last 50 or 60 years."

The EPA and Justice Department typically use the threat of lawsuits and heavy fines to force cities to fix dilapidated sewer systems that pose environmental and public health hazards. Several other cities, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Miami and Toledo, Ohio, have faced similar enforcement actions.

The city's sewer system, much of which was built in the early 20th century, carries more than 200 million gallons of waste and water through about 3,000 miles of pipes. This underground flow of waste generally runs downhill to two treatment plants, on the Back and Patapsco rivers.

But the aging system has been afflicted by leaks, spills and overflow problems, polluting waterways such as the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run. Some sewer pipes that feed the city's system also take in rainwater, which can lead to overflows during heavy storms that force the diversion of sewage directly into waterways.

Federal officials have said the settlement would be a detailed, comprehensive plan to correct all of the sewer system's problems, including inadequate capacity in some areas, sewage overflows caused by the failure of old or poorly maintained equipment, and chronic leaks.

In anticipation of the settlement, the city is preparing to more than double the amount it can borrow to pay for sewer projects, and O'Malley said yesterday that the state has agreed to help cut borrowing costs by using its ability to issue bonds at lower interest rates.

The administration has proposed an ambitious list of sewer projects for the next four years totaling $714 million - about $550 million more than the department spent in the past four years. In the next fiscal year alone, the city is expected to spend $110 million on sewer projects, much of which will pay for replacing pipes.

The city also has costly water projects planned, including improvements at its treatment plants to meet federal drinking water mandates, city officials said, and the rehabilitation of the Loch Raven Dam. Some projects have been added since Sept. 11 to bolster security, including safety improvements to the city's water filtration plants.

With more water improvement projects planned in the coming years at the urging of regulators, officials said, residents can expect to see annual increases in not just sewer rates but also water rates.

"The ability for people to pay these increases concerns me, because as rates increase, people's salaries are not necessarily increasing," City Council President Sheila Dixon said. "This is going to be a tough pill to swallow."

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