With the Baltimore area's aging water system failing "at an alarming rate," public works officials are seeking a 9 percent rate increase to help finance water main replacements and other improvements.
The proposed water and sewer rate hike, to start July 1, would trigger higher bills for 1.8 million customers in the city and several surrounding counties. Annual bills for the average Baltimore family of four would increase by $81, according to the public works department.
Officials said the extra money would help to combat leaks and other problems in a system that has had more than 1,300 water main breaks over the past year — including several high-profile cases. In March a break in a 36-inch main left northwest Baltimore County customers without water for days, and in September a break in a 72-inch main flooded 100 Dundalk homes.
"We're losing 20 percent of finished water in leaks and breaks from a system where over 95 percent of water mains have reached or passed their useful life. We have to fix it," Kishia L. Powell of the Department of Public Works told members of the city Board of Estimates Wednesday.
Nearly all of Baltimore's water mains are more than 65 years old and have not been inspected, the public works department says. The system needs to be replaced at a rate of 3 percent per year, which would cost more than $65 million.
"The city's water infrastructure is critical to the quality of our everyday life, yet it's failing at an alarming rate," said Powell, head of the bureau of water and wastewater.
The proposed water and sewer rate increase is expected to bring in an additional $16.2 million, said public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.
Baltimore public works officials said the 9 percent increase would extend to city water supplied to customers in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties. Baltimore County, which receives its water from the city system, sets its own water and sewer rates; local officials have proposed a 10 percent increase for the next fiscal year, said county public works spokesman David Fidler.
Advocates for the poor worry the increase may add to the burden of those struggling in the economic downturn.
"I already have people coming through here asking for help with water bills," said Rachael Neill, director of the CARES food pantry and emergency financial assistance center run by the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. "That's not something we have any funds for."
Within the last year and a half, someone has requested help paying a water bill at least once or twice a month, she said.
"It's the timing in addition to everything else," Neill said. Many leases hold renters responsible for paying water bills, and so tenants can be evicted for falling behind.
Baltimore seniors over the age of 65 with a household income of less than $25,000 can apply to receive a 30 percent discount on their quarterly water bills through a city program. Limited income residents can also receive a credit toward their delinquent bills if they meet income requirements and if they agree to a payment plan.
Public works officials said the rate increase is needed because there's no federal money to cover infrastructure costs. The agency applied for $700 million in stimulus funds for 27 projects, but only received $12 million.
"So we're requesting an extra $20 a quarter [from the average family] to invest in our infrastructure and improve our service delivery," Powell said.
According to Kocher, water and sewer rates increased 9 percent in 2009 and 4 percent in 2008. They increased 9 percent every year since 2003.
A hearing on the proposed increase will be held June 9.