Baltimore’s water shut-off policy is a disgrace

BY WILL MARCUS

Earlier this year, the Rawlings-Blake administration authorized Baltimore’s Department of Public Works to cut off water to thousands of customers with outstanding bills. This is not unprecedented — administrators in Detroit launched a similar program. However, Baltimore’s version seems far more targeted. One only need look at the distribution of the shutoffs to see how Dundalk and Gwynn Oak counties, which are both outside the city, have had more service cuts than Baltimore . Dundalk county is one tenth the population of Baltimore city, yet has had more water service terminations. Moreover, the program didn’t cut water service to a single business for six weeks. In the first six weeks, all 1,600 cuts were to residential customers. This debt collection program will continue through October, but as of Sept. 2, the city has shut off water to only 11 of the businesses on the list of those with outstanding bills. Meanwhile the Baltimore Department of Public Works cut water to its 5,000th residential customer within the past week and a half. This is a mind-blowing double standard — it is absurd to target residential accounts before business accounts in the first place.

Businesses are not homes. Yes they obviously need water to maintain their operations, but a home needs water to properly sustain life. Furthermore, businesses’ and corporations’ unpaid water bills compose nearly $15 million of the total $40 million debt. The city has been shutting off water over three-digit bills while corporations with four, five and even six digit bills continue to receive service. Because of a businesses’ larger amounts of capital, and capacity to accrue money, they also have more options than a poor individual residence. Its far easier for a business to scrounge up the money for an unpaid water bill than it is for an individual to do the same. In this case, a large corporation also finds it easier to pay a legal team to dispute the charges in court. Reportedly, many residents with unpaid water bills have had to choose between food and water. Naturally those who do have the money to pay their bills have done so because of this policy but that doesn’t mean it is right. No one should have to choose between food and water in a first world country.

Many unfortunate souls who find themselves unable to able to pay their water bills have lived the nightmare of urban life with no water for months. Imagine a life where showers are a precious commodity available only received through the kindness of others. Imagine filling up buckets cup by cup from public water fountains or spending your precious income on bottled water instead of food. Imagine what it must feel like to not have enough water to mix your infant formula. Imagine if you have to build a new way of life around managing your water supply. Imagine if these water shut-offs lead you to lose your job because you had to choose between basic hygiene and staying hydrated. Shutting off poor people’s water is a great way to get those who can afford to pay to do so promptly, but it also puts those who can’t on a fast track to misery and homelessness.

Meanwhile, in the thick of water shut off season, Baltimore city sponsored a 1,000 foot slip ‘n slide that cost $25 for a single ride. The “Slide the City” event this summer captures just how completely this situation is out of hand. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake commented that water shut-offs were a more merciful debt collection technique than its predecessor: tax sales. To be honest, I agree. However, just because cutting off someone’s water is more merciful than taking their home over a three digit debt doesn’t mean its right to do. Just one solution to the problem might have been intermittent water shutoffs that started with a program of two weeks on, two weeks off. This option would have been plenty devastating yet still afforded people the ability to maintain some semblance of their normal lives.

Or better yet, Baltimore city could have just gone after their corporate clients with the same ferocity. Corporate accounts make up almost half of the debt, yet they simply haven’t collected anywhere near what they’ve collected from residential clients. Pennington Partners & Co. owes $422,000, Atlantic Alliance owes $238,000 and Tricap Management, Inc. owes $215,000. As of Sept. 2, Baltimore’s Department of Public Works has not turned off any of these corporations’ water despite the fact that they haven’t paid for years.

In conclusion, water is a basic human right, and no one should ever be deprived of it in the 21st century. But even further, there has to be a way to incentivize people to pay their water bills without sabotaging others’ ability to pay in the first place. The whole system is targeted extortion. I understand that Baltimore has been over budget for far too long, but city leadership has a responsibility to defend the best interests of the public, not go after them because they’re the easiest target.

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