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The Covid-19 Pandemic

by Lizzie Kane11:39 amApr 2, 20200

Advocates press Baltimore on water affordability during coronavirus crisis

A key deadline is coming up for water relief measures, but no word yet from the Department of Public Works on whether they will meet it

Above: Water for hand washing and other tasks has become a life-and-death issue. (Mark Reutter)

Advocates for Baltimore water customers are calling on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the City Council to take action to ensure that water is affordable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, with hand washing being the No. 1 tool to slow the spread of coronavirus, we want to make sure families in Baltimore are not potentially skipping hand washing because of the fears of overly burdensome water bills,” said Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for Food & Water Watch.

Eckel’s group, joined by more than 40 others including the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the Public Justice Center, recently came together to press for rate relief and other measures to support cash-strapped water customers.

“People are already facing some pretty extreme economic crises, and we need to do everything we can to make sure that not only do people have water throughout the crisis, but that we are making that water as affordable as we possibly can for the most people we possibly can,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice.

Amster said it is important to ensure that programs already in place help maintain water affordability as well.

The coalition is also concerned about residents being protected from “enormous, unaffordable water bills” after the state of emergency is over, Eckel added.

Come July 1, another 10% increase in city water and wastewater bills will take effect.

Deadline Approaching

Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, said today the mayor is focused “on making sure during this time of crisis that people have access to safe clean water.”

“No one’s getting their water turned off. There aren’t water turn-offs anymore, so no one has to fear that,” he said.

He noted that, as a result of the pandemic, both Young and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski have waived water bill late fees and reassured customers there will be no water turn-offs.

“No one’s getting their water turned off. . . so no one has to fear that”  – Mayor Young’s spokesman.

But advocates are looking for more permanent and systemic water affordability measures under a new law.

Last year they scored a victory when the City Council approved the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which discounts billing rates based on income and give customers a greater opportunity to challenge erroneous bills.

But Eckel is skeptical that the regulations to comply with the act will be completed in time to meet an April 13 deadline.

“Even though we understand the administration has a lot of competing priorities, they have had plenty of time to work on these regulations,” she said.

A City Council hearing regarding the implementation of the law was cancelled on March 26 due to the pandemic.

A hearing on the law’s implementation was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The act’s tiered billing system – which caps water bills at no more than 1% of annual pay – is one way for city government “to make sure that water bills are not overly burdening folks who are struggling to get back on their feet.”

Asked whether DPW will be able to meet the deadline and put the affordability program in place, the agency’s spokesman, Kurt Kocher, said, “I know nothing about that, sorry.”

He requested that the press release be emailed to him. The Brew forwarded the information, but has yet to hear anything back.

Davis said he would ask DPW to respond.

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