Water and sewer rates on the rise

Millions in region face higher bills

March 08, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore-area residents and businesses will likely face another round of significant increases in water and sewer bills this year, the latest in a long line of rate increases to pay for repairing the region's decades-old sewer system.

Customers in Baltimore would face a nearly 30 percent increase in sewer and water bills phased in over three years under a proposal pending before the city's Board of Estimates.

Similar rate increases could be imposed on water bills in Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties as the city's costs are passed on.

FOR THE RECORD - The caption accompanying a photograph on Page 1A yesterday incorrectly identified the location where workers were replacing sewer pipes. It was on Huntingdon Avenue.
The Sun regrets the error.

Water and sewer rate increases, while not unexpected, have been controversial in the past - including the last time they were approved, in 2004.

This year, they come as residents in the region face large electricity rate increases and, in some areas, higher property taxes spurred by escalating property assessments.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon - who as City Council president previously voted against rate increases - said yesterday that the additional money is needed so the city can comply with a 2002 federal mandate requiring more than $900 million in repairs to leaking systems.

"I always worry about the squeeze on families. We try to do it as [minimally] as possible because we're all affected by this," Dixon said. "It's not something we want to do, but this mandate has forced us to upgrade our sewer systems and deal with the water."

As in the past, the increases would be phased in so that bills would rise by 9 percent annually for three years. A family of four in Baltimore using about 117,000 gallons of water in a year would notice their bill increase from $731 to $797 in the first year and to $946 in 2009.

Calculating the impact in suburban counties connected to Baltimore's regional system is complicated because, to begin with, city water can be blended with water from other systems, city officials said. Some suburban customers are connected to the city's sewer system; others are not. Most counties are expected to set new rates, based in part on the additional pass-through costs, next month.

Howard County's director of public works, James M. Irvin, said officials there will review the increases from the city over the next several weeks. He said Howard County residents will likely see some increase, but how much is unclear.

"Obviously, 9 percent a year for the next three years - there will probably have to be some sort of adjustment made," Irvin said. "We understand why they're doing it. We have to review the matter with the county executive and then we will make a decision about whether to increase our rates to cover that expense."

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said the county expects to publicize its rates next month. When Baltimore City raised its rates by 9 percent in 2003, Baltimore County increased its rates 10 percent.

A public hearing on the rate increases is scheduled for the April 11 Board of Estimates meeting at City Hall, starting at 9 a.m.

Baltimore's sewer system serves about 1.6 million customers in the region and the water system has about 1.8 million customers. Baltimore Department of Public Works officials stressed that the city's water rates are lower than other counties in Maryland and other cities around the country, including Boston, Washington and Philadelphia.

Still, the same 9 percent annual increases were heavily criticized by business and consumer groups in 2003, and an unusually divided Board of Estimates approved the increase on a 3-2 vote.

In addition to Dixon, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted against the rate increases then. At the time, Pratt said the city should do more to shield the elderly and other fixed-income residents from the rate increases. Yesterday, Pratt said auditors in her office are reviewing the request to ensure the increases are necessary.

"The purpose of the review is to determine whether the methodology warrants a 9 percent increase," said Pratt, adding that her review should be complete next week.

Rate increases came before the board again in 2004. Pratt voted against them. Dixon was absent from the meeting but her office released a statement that said, "It's unfair for city residents to assume the enormous financial burdens of replacing its outdated systems without federal aid."

This year, the increases come as Baltimore Gas and Electric customers are preparing for a roughly 50 percent rise in electric rates - a holdover from the 72 percent increases that prompted a special session of the General Assembly last year. Property taxes are also going up for many city residents because assessments are rising.

For the first time - and in a discussion unrelated to water and sewer rates - Dixon said yesterday that next year's budget will contain a 2 cent cut in the property tax rate that had been promised by her predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley. In the past, Dixon did not commit to that reduction.

"We're going to do the 2 cents," Dixon said, adding that she will continue to pursue long-term property-tax relief as well.

City public works officials said they chose to phase in annual increases rather than imposing a single spike. The money is needed, they say, to comply with a federal consent decree in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the city to eliminate overflows that send thousands of gallons of raw sewage into area streams each year.

In the 2008 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2007, the city expects to collect $163 million in sewer fees and $124.7 million in water bills, public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher said. Of that, about $14.5 million will come from the first 9 percent rate increase.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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