Board OKs 9% increase in water rates in the city

In 3-2 decision, Pratt says rise is `unfair' to elderly

April 24, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Despite objections from businesses, residents and elected officials, the city's Board of Estimates approved yesterday higher water and sewer rates that take effect today for city users.

The 3-2 vote yesterday imposes 9 percent increases for water and sewer services, a decision that will also seep into the bills of surrounding counties connected to the city system.

The increase, the sixth in eight years, is essential for the city to meet a federal mandate requiring $900 million in repairs to its aging sewerage system over the next 13 years.

Mayor Martin O'Malley chastised the federal government for imposing the large overhaul without financial assistance. He said President Bush should abandon tax breaks and funnel taxes back to the city.

"What if we used that federal money to invest in infrastructure," O'Malley said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon and City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, both members of the Board of Estimates, voted against the increase. O'Malley and his two Cabinet members who serve on the board - Public Works Director George Winfield and City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer - voted for the rate increases.

Pratt and Dixon said elderly and poorer residents cannot afford higher rates.

"It's unfair and unjust that seniors have to decide between flushing the toilet or taking their prescriptions," said Pratt, who may challenge O'Malley in September's mayoral primary.

The rate increases translate into an average annual water and sewer bill of $564 for a typical family of four living in the city, $46 more than what they pay now. Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties may also increase rates as a result. Baltimore County officials said a 10 percent increase could be implemented in July.

Pratt criticized the Public Works Department for having no plan to help elderly residents absorb the increases.

"The fact that they have not addressed the issue is a serious problem," Pratt said.

Some of the state's biggest companies had the same complaint. The Maryland Industrial Group called for a five-year freeze on rate increases or a lower rate for industrial companies that use the highest volumes of water. A representative from the group said 12 member businesses own facilities in Baltimore, including W.R. Grace & Co. and Domino Sugar.

"We don't want to see these companies leave the city or Maryland," said Jonas Jacobson, the attorney for the group.

City officials said such companies should not complain because they do not pay energy taxes. O'Malley said the group should lobby Washington to steer more federal money to offset the city's costs.

"You have more influence with President Bush than the residents of Auchentoroly Terrace do," O'Malley said.

Grace Elizabeth Dorsey, a block captain in the 3300 block of Auchentoroly Terrace near Druid Hill Park, said rates should not increase while her neighbors deal with a recurring problem with brown water that the city has not been able to fix.

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