Water rate boost planned

Baltimore official says 9% increase is needed to pay for work on system

$46 more a year for family of 4

Move would affect users in surrounding counties

March 18, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

City officials proposed yesterday increasing water and sewer rates next month for the sixth time in eight years, a boost that would ripple into surrounding counties.

Baltimore Public Works Director George Winfield told City Council members yesterday that he is proposing a 9 percent increase in each to cover the escalating costs of protecting and improving a deteriorating infrastructure that serves not only the city but also Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

The Board of Estimates will vote on the proposal April 23. If the board approves the increase, the new rates would take effect the next day.

"We still have some of the cheapest water rates of most metropolitan areas on the East Coast," Winfield said in his presentation to council members during their lunch yesterday with Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The rate increases would mean an annual $564 water and sewer bill for a family of four living in the city, $46 more than what they currently pay.

The proposal instantly raised protests from council members, many of whom were eager to explain that they do not implement such rates.

"We have nothing to do with this," said City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who is also chairwoman of the Board of Estimates, said she will vote against the rate increase, as she did last year.

"This tax is too much. The $46 increase may be a small amount for some families," Dixon said. But, she added, the increase would hurt poor families.

Last year, the city increased water rates by 16 percent and sewer rates by 10 percent, a proposal the Board of Estimates passed by a 3-2 vote. The higher rates are necessary to cover increasing costs of repairs to the century-old system that were demanded last year by federal and state regulators. The city's water system serves 1.8 million users and the sewer system serves 1.6 million.

The sewer system has suffered from constant overflows. The latest occurred at Herring Run last month and spilled more than 35 million gallons of sewage. Meanwhile, the water system has had a record number of water main breaks this year.

Dixon said she wants Winfield's office to pursue federal dollars more aggressively to help pay for repairs being forced upon the city's water and waste-water utility, which operates with a $220 million budget.

"The federal government needs to give us more support," she said. "And we have to do a better job of going after federal dollars."

Winfield said his department has done all it can to secure federal money. "It's not like we're sitting around doing nothing," he said. "There is no money available to do what needs to be done to the water system."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department joined state regulators and threatened to file a lawsuit unless the city fixed the problems to its sewage system.

The city settled, agreeing to pay a $600,000 fine and to make $900 million in repairs over the next 13 years. The city has also spent money on providing extra security to its water facilities.

The city is spending $24 million to change its water-treatment plants from systems that use chlorine -- a substance that could be turned into weapons by terrorists -- to ones that use bleach.

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