Higher water bills get city OK

27% increase over 3 years to pay for fixing sewers

Federally mandated repairs

Suburban residents using system also will pay more

April 15, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In a rare contentious and split vote, the city's spending board approved yesterday an increase in water and sewer rates of 27 percent over three years to pay for federally mandated repairs to the city's leaky sewage system.

The increase, required by a consent decree, will pay for a $900 million series of improvements meant to stop the spilling of pollution from cracked, sometimes century-old pipes into streams that lead into the Chesapeake Bay.

Homeowners in suburban counties served by the city's water system, including those in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties, also will be hit with higher rates, city officials said. The increases will be on top of the $30-per-household annual sewage fee proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and approved by the state legislature Monday.

"I want to reassure the citizens that this was not something we were looking for," Mayor Martin O'Malley said before the Board of Estimates voted 3-1 with one abstention in favor of the rate increases.

"But our Justice Department, under our commander in chief, George Bush -- the same commander in chief who did not provide for our homeland defense -- sent us a team of lawyers to force us to sign this," O'Malley said.

"I believe that if the Republicans could tax the poor on the air they breathe, they would do that, too, in the name of the environment," O'Malley said. "These mandates from the federal and state governments fall disproportionately on poor people and working people, although it's for a good cause, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay."

When the last of the scheduled increases takes effect April 15, 2006, the city's water and sewer rates will have jumped a combined total of about 110 percent from 1998 to 2006, with a series of earlier increases also required by tightened federal and state environmental standards, city officials said.

A family of four living in the city that paid $564 for water and sewer service last year will see that bill grow by $51 this year, another $55 next year and another $60 in 2006 (not counting the additional $30 annual fee imposed by the state).

O'Malley and his two employees on the five-member Board of Estimates, City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. and public works Director George L. Winfield, who follow the mayor's lead, voted in favor of the rate increase yesterday.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted agaist the raise, complaining that the city hasn't come up with a long-promised plan to lessen the burden on older and lower-income people.

"This is not affordable to the seniors and low-income residents of the city," Pratt said of the increase.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, the fifth member and chairwoman of the board, did not attend yesterday's meeting because she had other business to attend to, said aide Christopher S. Williams.

Williams released a statement from Dixon that said: "It's unfair for city residents to assume the enormous financial burdens of replacing its outdated systems without federal aid."

In Dixon's absence, council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake served as chairwoman of the meeting, and she abstained.

"I wasn't in favor of the increase, but I do understand why it is necessary, so I thought an abstention would represent my position," said Rawlings Blake.

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