The City of Baltimore is owed $40 million in unpaid water bills, and they’re taking a page out of Detroit’s book to get it back. The Public Works office sent out notices to 25,000 residences today informing them that if their water bills are not paid in ten days, the pipes will run dry, not only placing a substantial burden on the city’s low-income families but possibly putting their health at risk, according to the Food & Water Watch nonprofit, who had this to say:
“Baltimore should not cut off service to households who cannot afford to pay the city’s ever-growing water rates. It is an insult to human dignity and would violate their basic human right to water. Disconnecting service to thousands of homes also poses a very real public health threat. Without water service, people cannot flush their toilets or wash their hands. Lack of adequate sanitation can cause diseases to spread, making people sick. The elderly, children and people with diabetes and other illnesses would be especially vulnerable. Extensive water shutoffs would be a public health crisis in the making.”
In a city where one in four live below the poverty line, 75,000 residents are at risk to lose water service and set the stage for a public health crisis. The real kicker is that half of Baltimore’s residents are renters, and only the property owner may manage water accounts- meaning that a great many people are at the mercy of their delinquent landlords and aren’t at fault for the late payments. In what is becoming an all-too familiar story across the country, over $15 million of the water debt is held by 369 businesses, with another $10 million owed by government offices and non-profits, but the city has decided that the urban poor are the ones who will be punished first.
To top it all off, the Public Works Department is notorious for its inefficient and incompetent billing procedures, chronically overcharging on invoices to the point that a 2012 audit forced the city to return a jaw-dropping $4 million to their cheated customers. Efforts to install modern meters are underway, at a cost of $83 million, but as the price of water goes off, one can only assume the cost will fall back on the consumers. It’s the American way.
The coldness of the shutoffs is really quite galling when you consider the Baltimore Sun’s recent expose on the attitudes of the City Councilors, who have a reputation for missing out on votes and generally not showing up to work. “Where else in America can you not to show up for work and then [make] a decision on something that impacts 600,000 people? That’s unacceptable” raged Councilman Brandon Scott, whose bill to establish health grades for restaurants was killed by William Welch, one of the worst truants, who was absent for 32% of his votes while still collecting his $63,000 city salary.
The sense that Baltimore City officials take perhaps a little too much advantage of their positions is made clear when one considers that the City spending board just authorized another $40,000 for official travel expenses, having already spent $100,000 on travel since 2013. Ironically, Public Works Rudy Chow, who has been criticized for his public travel bill, is taking a $2,115 trip to California for a water conference while tens of thousands of his constituents will soon be thirsty and unwashed.
The water cuts to Baltimore’s neediest are unconscionable, unfair, and ill-advised, especially after the debacle that happened in Detroit. The people of Baltimore deserve more accountability from their city officials, or at the very least the semblance that they’re putting in an effort. These problems are becoming clearer and clearer as time goes on, and crises like this deserve more attention in the national media. The recent “license to discriminate” bills in Arkansas and Indiana prove that the nation does care and can play a huge role in affecting local issues, and it’s our duty as Americans to look out for the well-being of all our fellow citizens.
Image via [Reuters]
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.