By Emily Poor, Esq.

On November 18, 2019, the Baltimore City Council passed Council Bill 19-0307, the Water Accountability and Equity Act (“WAEA”). The passage of the WAEA is the culmination of years of advocacy by the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, of which PBRC is a member. Mayor Young signed the bill into law on January 13, 2020, and it will become effective on July 13, 2020. The WAEA (a) creates a new water affordability program for households at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines; (b) extends program eligibility to tenants; (c) establishes a new Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals within the Department of Public Works (“DPW”);  and (d) delineates a formal dispute resolution process for water and wastewater billing disputes and disputes concerning the new water affordability program.

  1. Water-for-All Discount Program

The WAEA will create a new water affordability program, the Water-for-All Discount Program, for households at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Both homeowners and tenants will be eligible to participate in the program. The Water-for-All program will entitle participants to a credit applied to their water bill, which will cap water bills at a percentage of income on the following tiered basis

  • 0-50% of Federal Poverty Guidelines – bill capped at 1% of income
  • 50-100% of Federal Poverty Guidelines – bill capped at 2% of income
  • 100-200% of Federal Poverty Guidelines – bill capped at 3% of income

For homeowners, the credit will be applied directly to water bills issued by DPW. For tenants in buildings with a master meter whose water is billed on an allocated basis, the credit will be disbursed by check.

In addition to offering billing credits, the Water-for-All program will allow participants to pay down arrears without making any additional payments beyond their current bill.  Each on-time payment by a Water-for-All participant will be credited toward the participant’s pre-enrollment arrears in the amount of that payment until all arrears are satisfied. Additionally, “[o]nce a recipient is enrolled in the Water-for-All Discount Program, timely payment in full of each bill satisfies all of a recipient’s current water liabilities, so that there is no addition to arrears after enrollment.” § 2-13(C).

  1. Rights and Protections for Tenants

As discussed above, the WAEA entitles income-eligible tenants to billing credits under the Water-for-All Discount program. The WAEA also strengthens protections for tenants by amending the City Code’s Residential Lease Requirements to require landlords to expressly state in a written lease if they require a tenant to pay the cost of water or wastewater services. Residential leases will be required to include a provision that the landlord make the tenant a designee to request and receive copies of any water or wastewater account records. Finally, if a landlord requires a tenant to reimburse the landlord for allocated water or wastewater costs, the lease must describe the calculation method and specify the average monthly allocated costs of service in the 12 months preceding execution of the lease.

  1. Office of Water-Customer Advocacy

The WAEA will create an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy, to be housed within DPW, which will serve as a “neutral intermediary created to promote fairness to customers dealing with water and wastewater billing disputes.” § 2-17(B)(1). The office will serve three primary functions:

  1. Advocating for customers by conducting problem-solving investigations into billing disputes and implementing solutions, including connecting customers to complementary social services, improving communication between customers and DPW, and adjusting bills when warranted.
  2. Conducting appeals hearings after a problem-solving determination has been made.[1]
  • Reporting on office activities and recommendations for changes to DPW rules, regulations, policies, and procedures at least semi-annually to a newly established Committee for Office Oversight.

Customers (both homeowners and tenants) may seek assistance from the Office either orally or in writing within 90 days of a disputed Water-for-All Discount program determination or other DPW action related to service or billing. Customer Advocates may grant equitable relief to customers in the form of the change of an amount due on a bill or the reversal of a DPW decision. Customer Advocates will be required to issue a written report, including a notice of the right to appeal, after the completion of an investigation.

  1. Appeals Process

Customers who are dissatisfied with the result of an investigation through the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy will have the right to appeal through a formal process created by the WAEA. DPW is required to contract with the Environmental Control Board, which will independently review determinations in a Customer Advocate’s investigative report through a formal hearing process. After a hearing, the independent Hearing Officer will issue a written proposed decision, which may be adopted or modified by the DPW Director in a final agency decision. A customer may seek judicial review of the final agency decision issued by DPW.

 

[1] The initial version of the bill stated that appeal hearings would be conducted within the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy. The final version provides for hearings to be conducted independently by the Environmental Control Board. However, conducting appeals hearings is still among the stated primary functions of the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy in the final bill.