Water, sewer rates rising

Officials OK 5th increase in seven years

city, suburban areas affected

Federal demands blamed

Repairs to century-old system, better security at plants are needed

April 11, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's water and sewer rates rise today for the fifth time in seven years, after city officials approved yesterday double-digit increases that also affect surrounding counties.

Mayor Martin O'Malley blamed "unfair" and "unjust" federal policies demanding costly improvements to water and sewer systems without providing funds.

Fees will increase about $57 a year for the average family of four in the city, to $518.

There are about 1.8 million users of city water and 1.6 million users of the sewer system. Residents of parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties use city sewer service; residents in parts of those counties as well as Carroll and Harford use city water.

More fee increases are likely because federal and state regulators are forcing Baltimore to make between $750 million and $900 million in repairs to the nearly century-old sewer system, city officials said. The city Board of Estimates approved the fee increase by a 3-2 vote, with City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt objecting.

O'Malley voted to accept the new rates, but after his vote, he launched into a blistering commentary about how the rates are forcing residents to shoulder the cost of government mandates.

"Not only do they not give us a dime to do this but threaten to fine" us if we don't, the mayor said. "I don't like it. I don't like it at all."

Calling this fee raise "one of the most difficult" fiscal issues he has had to deal with in office, he said federal and state governments pass the buck to local authorities to pay for their policies.

"It's a shell game. The federal government plays a shell game and state governments play a shell game," O'Malley said.

The sewer rate increase of 10 percent a year stems from a proposed settlement of allegations the city violated the Clean Water Act.

The city's sewers have 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, threatened to file a lawsuit unless the city agreed to fix those problems.

The agreement calls for improvements to be carried out over the next 14 years. The mayor successfully urged regulators to extend the period for the repairs to soften the blow on residents, said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.

Still, another rate increase within the next two years is likely, Zollicoffer said, but it will not be as high.

"One of the things that the mayor kind of mandated was that there wouldn't be this ongoing, double-digit increase because it was just unconscionable to him," Zollicoffer said.

The 16 percent increase in the city's water rate is not a federal mandate, but city officials have argued that the government should help pay for that, too.

Higher water fees will fund heightened security at the city's treatment and filtration plants in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Security is expected to cost $1.6 million a year.

In addition, the Department of Public Works is changing the chemical it uses to purify water, from chlorine, a hazardous gas, to bleach. That changeover will cost about $20 million, said DPW Director George L. Winfield.

The bleach will cause higher operating costs because its shelf life of two weeks is much shorter than chlorine's. A new container site must be built to house the bleach, Winfield said.

"This is what everybody is doing because of 9/11," Winfield said of the water plant changes.

Few opponents attended a public hearing yesterday before the board's vote. Dixon said that most people won't pay attention to the utility increases until they get their first bill.

Those in attendance included Carroll County officials who buy water from the city, a local yeast manufacturer and the president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Metropolitan Baltimore.

Carroll buys untreated water from the city and cleans it at its own plant. Officials wanted to know why the increase would affect them when they do not require the same amount of service that other users do.

"We operate the system as a holistic system and therefore everyone shares the costs," Winfield said.

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