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Baltimore Launches Water4All Program Tying Billing To Income, An Initiative Years In The Making

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Mayor Brandon Scott and city officials on Tuesday launched the Water4All billing program, an initiative years in the making that ties the cost of water and wastewater service to income for some residents.

The program is open to residents who make less than double the federal poverty rate. For example, the federal poverty rate for a family of four is $26,500, meaning Baltimore families making less than $53,000 would be eligible, officials said.

The program works with families to set up a monthly fee they can afford on their water bill, and that amount goes towards their outstanding bill, but is not based solely on water consumption or debt, but household income. the fee capped 1%, 2% or 3% of annual household income.

In addition to homeowners who are billed by the city, tenants who pay directly for drinking water and wastewater services are eligible for the program, as are renters who are invoiced for service by their landlord or whose lease clearly states they are responsible for paying for service.

"Through the program, the City of Baltimore will be able to help more low-income residents manage their monthly water and sewer costs," Scott said. "Simply put, Water4All will be a game-changer for our residents."

Scott said water billing has been a problem since he entered city government in 2007 and going as far back to his childhood.

Ivry Harris, a lifelong Baltimore resident, said she has seen this issue persist for generations.

"Extremely high water bills, it doesn't matter who you talk to or what they say its still a problem," said Harris, who was pessimistic about any program making a great enough change.

For years, Baltimoreans have received questionable bills. A December 2020 report conducted by the inspectors generals in Baltimore City and Baltimore County found problems persisted even after the city and county spent $133 million in contracts since 2011 to enhance the water system.

Baltimore Department of Public Works director Jason Mitchell said the Water4All program is one component in the city's attempt to fix billing. In Aug. 2019, the city partnered with the Environmental Control Board to review charges, he said, and hiring customer advocates is a "top priority" for the agency.

The legislation to create the Water4All program, the Water Accountability and Equity Act, was first introduced in December 2018 by then-City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

The council passed the bill in November 2019, and Young, who had been elevated to mayor following the resignation of Catherine Pugh, signed it into law in January 2020.

He later delayed implementation of the law due to the pandemic.

Rianna Eckel, an organizer with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said the program will bring the city in line with international standards that say people should only pay 3% of their income for water service. Nearly half of city residents pay a higher rate, with some paying as much as 10%, she added.

"Capping water bills at an affordable level for low-income families directly correlated to their household income will provide consistent, permanently affordable water service, ensuring that water bills won't rise until families' incomes rise," Eckel said.

Eckel, who convened the Right to Water Coalition in 2016, said gas and electric companies  have used a system like this one for decades, knowing its better to get some payments than nothing at all when people get overwhelmed with their bills.

Water4All will phase out the BH2O Assists and BH2O Plus assistance programs, city officials said.

Applications for Water4All are available online or by calling 410-396-5555.

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