This article will appear in the September issue of the MSBA Bar Bulletin.
After nearly four months of their billing system being down due to a ransomware attack, the Baltimore Department of Public Works has begun issuing water bills again. According to a recent press release from DPW, bills will be sent out in batches between early August and early September. Customers will be in for some high bills, which include several months of charges as well as 9.9% rate increase that went into effect on July 1st. The average residential bill will likely reach $300-400.
For several years, volunteer attorneys have been assisting clients struggling with their water bills at legal clinics, co-sponsored by the Pro Bono Resource Center of MD (PBRC) and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). In addition to affordability challenges, Baltimore residents at all income levels face disputes about their water bills, which are difficult to resolve. Since DPW removed its informal conference process in 2016, there has been no formalized way for customers to challenge their bills.
In December 2018, Mayor Jack Young (City Council President at that time) introduced the Water Accountability and Equity Act as a holistic approach to address both affordability issues and the dispute process within DPW. This bill has the support of a wide range of advocates who compose the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, as well as all members of City Council. At a May hearing, City Council President, Brandon Scott, reported that water bills were the number one complaint his office received, even more so than crime.
Faced with mounting pressure DPW issued new regulations, effective August 12th, 2019, instituting a formal dispute process with the ability to appeal decisions to the Environmental Control Board for a hearing. The agency also introduced the H20Assist program which offers a discount for low income customers. These changes are a step in the right direction for an agency that has faced lack of trust from the public for years, although advocates are still pushing for more improvements. The hearing process should be fully independent of DPW, should be accessible to homeowners, tenants, and commercial properties, and should include reporting and public oversight. Any assistance program should be based on the customer’s ability to pay and should not charge low income customers more than 3% of their monthly income, which is the threshold set by the United Nations for water affordability.
As City Council and advocates continue to push for change, water customers should be aware of their rights and the current assistance programs that exist. The dispute process regulations mentioned above are already in effect and can be accessed on DPW’s website and utilized by customers who believe the new water bill they receive is incorrect. Customers should also be aware of the ability to enter into a payment plan over 6-12 months. The H20Assist program is accepting applications at Community Action Center or by mail to DPW and will start processing those applications on September 9th.
If you want to help a low income client who is struggling with a water bill dispute, please consider volunteering for an upcoming Utility Bill Clinic on October 17, 2019, hosted by PBRC and MVLS. For more information and free online training email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://probonomd.org/for-lawyers/training/utility/.
Written by Margaret Henn, Director of the Home Preservation Project at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.