The Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) the City’s announced its plans to shut off water service to those who are behind on their bills through a press release dated March 27th. As the notices spread, advocacy by concerned citizens in Baltimore and subsequent press coverage has drawn into question this plan in Maryland and across the country. Even though I am very focused on the closing days of Session, I felt strongly that I take the time to make inquiries to the City so that I can better understand the issue and add my voice and support where I am able.

Based on what I have been able to discern thus far, my position is that paying water bills are necessary if the residents are able, but we need to make sure residents have the capacity to do so and that programs to help them are adequately publicized in order to ensure we do not violate human rights by shutting off water. Additionally it’s also important for all of us to understand the rules and legislation around water shut offs and tax sales and how the situation we now face evolved.

So I’m sending this email to you now to provide some background, outline my concerns, explain the City’s response and the water shut off and tax sales program.  I will conclude with several opportunities to access discount programs and legal assistance.

On April 7th, I sent a letter to Baltimore City Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow on the concerns I share with Baltimore City residents and advocates and what I asked the City to consider to address the problem. I received immediate responses from Director Chow and from the Mayor’s Office about steps they are taking to help consumers. I’m monitoring these processes closely and remain in close touch with DPW and the Mayor’s Office.

As always, I urge you to contact my office at (410) 235-2707 or at mary.washington@house.state.md.us if you need assistance with water shut offs or any other issues.

Background:

While water is a simple thing, how we deliver it and how we pay for it is not.  As you may be aware, the City can sell your property at auction if you have unpaid liens against the property of up to $350 for water and sewage, with certain exceptions. This is known as a “tax sale.”

Starting each December, Baltimore City sends out ‘Dunning Notices,’ the first serious warning that a property is eligible for the May tax sale. Then, every April to October, Baltimore City issues notices to disconnect water service for those who owe more than $250. The reason for shutoffs is to prevent debt being accumulated by the homeowner that could trigger a tax sale and to allow the City to recoup money it is owed. Currently, outstanding water bills total $40 million, money desperately needed to upgrade aging pipes and infrastructure.

One intervention made in the General Assembly this year was HB 1035 Baltimore City – Tax Sales. This was a bill put forward by the Baltimore City Administration in response to an expose in an Abell Foundation Report that detailed the disparate impact current tax sale policies have on low income homeowners and can lead to evictions, homelessness and property abandonment. The report made several recommendations to alleviate the burden on low-income, senior, disabled and veteran owner-occupants that are partially addressed by HB 1035. Passed by the Maryland General Assembly, one provision in this bill raises the threshold from $350 to $750 before the Baltimore City government can put a residential property on tax sale due to unpaid water and sewer bills. This is a step towards addressing the tax sale problem, but the bill goes into effect July 1, 2015 and is only effective after that date. This means that for the current tax sale in May, the rate remains $350 for unpaid water and sewer bills to trigger the property being sold at tax sale.

Concerns:

Water is a basic human right. The United Nations affirmed this while admonishing the City of Detroit last year when it was undertaking large-scale water shutoffs.[1] The only way to shut off water without violating human rights is to prove that the property owner could afford to pay but chooses not to. Coming from a human rights framework, I have several concerns regarding the shutoff plan:

1)      Individual customers are not responsible for the majority of this debt. In fact, the Baltimore Sun found more than 1/3 of unpaid bills stem from just 369 businesses, which owe $15 million in revenue, while government offices and nonprofits have outstanding water bills to the tune of $10 million. These accounts should be prioritized over those of residents.

2)      This is not only a Baltimore City issue. We need a consistent statewide solution to this problem.

3)      Many Baltimore families and retirees simply lack the financial ability to pay their bills. Given the scope of the delinquencies and recent increased water rates, it appears that the currently available Low Income Water Assistance Program and the Low Income Senior Water Discount Program are failing to reach or meet the needs of all the households who qualify.

4)      It is problematic to send shutoff notices to non-owner occupied housing. Water service is often included in a tenant’s rent, though the owner or landlord is responsible for paying water bills. In these cases, tenants who are up-to-date on their rent could lose water service through no fault of their own and have no recourse to get it turned back on, as the City will not allow non-owners to contract for water services.

5)      Disconnecting service poses a public health threat. Without water service, people cannot flush their toilets or wash their hands. Lack of adequate sanitation can cause diseases to spread and people to become sick, especially the elderly, pregnant women, children and people with diabetes and other illnesses.

For this reason and all the concerns outlined above, I stand with Baltimore City residents and advocates who are calling for a moratorium on all water shutoffs until those served with notices have had a chance to be heard in public hearings. In addition, I asked the City to:

  1. Allow sufficient time for expanded, one-to-one customer outreach about assistance programs and payment plan options
  2. Prioritize collections from delinquent government and commercial accounts:
  3. Ensure that every household which qualifies for low income and/or senior discounts is automatically enrolled

Response from the City:

The Mayor’s Office has sent the following information:

Water Turnoff Program:

Accounts eligible for shutoff receive at least one delinquent notice and one turn-off notice. A turnoff list is produced for all accounts that meet these requirements. The list is being scrubbed to remove accounts that have payment plans or other agreements that put them in good standing, are under review or fulfill one of several other criteria for exemption.

Customers can request a review of their accounts, during which the City will continue to provide service.

TIMING:

Water turn offs are performed Monday-Thursday. Turn offs are not performed on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, official city holidays, nor if there is a heat or cold advisory in effect issued by the Baltimore City Health Department. Turn offs will occur as soon as the advisory is lifted.

Service restoration:

  • Payments must be processed by the Bureau of Revenue Collections
  • A field representative is dispatched to the locations to restore water service within 24 hours unless there are exceptional circumstances, Monday – Friday during normal business hours
  • If the water is restored and no one is at home, the water is turned back off if there is movement on the meter.

ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS:

In addition to payment plans, the City offers assistance programs to those who qualify:

Customers may call Customer Support and Services at (410) 396-5398 for details

These programs and applications are listed on the City website, available through the City’s Community Action Centers and Senior Citizen Centers, and brought to community meetings and events by the City’s Community Liaisons.

The Mayor’s Office of Human Resources and the Department of Housing and Community Development have been good partners in promoting these programs as well.

Even if customers do not qualify for one of these programs, there are other assistance programs offered through the City and other entities that can help bring down other bills to assist with customers’ financial pressures.

Tax Sale Legal Clinic Events:

Additionally there are two tax sale legal clinics coming up for you to attend if you are interested in receiving FREE legal advice about tax sale and/or foreclosure.

Tax Sale Legal Clinics:
When: April 15th from 3-7pm
Where: Enoch Pratt Library Southeast Anchor Branch at 3601 Eastern Ave. Baltimore, MD 21224
Pre-register: www.probonomd.org/legal-help or call the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at 443-703-3052

When: April 22nd from 1-4pm
Where: The Zeta Center at 4501 Reisterstown Road Baltimore, MD 21215
Pre-register: www.probonomd.org/legal-help or call the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at 443-703-3052


[1] Joint Press Statement by Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and to right to non-discrimination in this context, and Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Visit to city of Detroit (United States of America) 18-20 October 2014 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15188&LangID=E#sthash.Z0XGAtB6.dpuf