Water water everywhere, so watch your wallets shrink


Everyone loves water. It’s refreshing, it cleans us, and it looks awesome from the beach with an Oak Barrel Stout in hand.

Unfortunately, our leadership – both on a state and local level – have seen the valuable resource as an opportunity to deprive citizens of their money, especially in the past year.

In Baltimore, payment for infrastructure is growing and fast: In June of 2012, Baltimore’s always fair and balanced Board of Public Works approved a 9% increase in Baltimore’s water bills. The increase would be disappointing if it ended there, but it’s only going to get worse. According to projections, the water bills will increase an additional 71% percent over the next five years. There is an argument to increase the fees, namely the poor state of Baltimore’s pipes. If there’s one thing that’s shoddier in Baltimore than its leaders’ ethics, its our infrastructure. On a nearly monthly basis some main or large pipe breaks, closing off parts of the city and making traffic even more difficult to navigate. During a given year there are usually a thousand or more breaks that occur within the pipe infrastructure, much of which is more than 70 years old. These breaks also cost the city significantly as emergency service contracts (which are usually costly) need to be approved as a result.

However, as always the ultimate problem is that city simply lacks the credibility to ask for more money. This is no more evident than when you see its billing practices. A year ago, Luke Broadwater at The Sun covered the Department of Public Works over billing as researched by Linda Stewart. The series of articles highlighted one central point: That Baltimore’s been receiving more money than it was entitled to for a long time. In response, the city issued more than $4 million in refunds and promised to fix its practices, which has yet to be seen.

Even if the practices are fixed, and the City is completely accurate in how much it charges residents, we still remain in the dark for how the money is spent, at least for now. Like many departments in this city, the Department of Public Works (or any predecessors) had not been given a fiscal audit for decades. When Baltimore had a legitimate opportunity to remedy this through instituting annual financial audits, the Mayor’s office responded by diluting the bill and only allowing 12 of Baltimore’s agencies to be audited every four years . Although the Department of Public Works was one of the Dirty Dozen, we will not know until at least 2014 if our money is being properly spent.

The bottom line in my view is this: Baltimore has erroneously accumulated significant amounts of money for its water works for a long time, without taking any quantifiable measures to insure a dime of it has been properly spent. Yet it now has the audacity to demand more for the next five years to fix an infrastructure it should have been addressing all along (which reminds me of another cash grab recently pushed for by the Mayor). Simultaneously, we haven’t received any assurance that the department will fix its spending practices (such as EWOs, which our Mayor assures us is fine). As citizens, we won’t know how much is actually properly spent until at least 2014, and even if we do discover misspending it remains doubtful that the board of public works will cease increasing the price as a result.

Being from Baltimore, I know a hustle when I see one.

A rain tax is also coming (or stormwater fee, if you prefer) – While Baltimore City has made it clear who will be paying the pipers (answer: us), the state has also decided to increase the bills for the sake of the bay. In the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly authorized the rain tax, which calls on the state’s largest jurisdictions (including Baltimore) to pay money for Chesapeake Bay cleanup. This is connected to Question J, which was overwhelmingly passed by the voters in the 2012 general election. The exact fee will be determined by the amount of impermeable surface you have on your location. Most homes in Baltimore will pay an extra $12 to $36 per three months for this effort. To learn more about the effort, here’s a slideshow that explains in a bit more detail. If you’re interested in seeing how much you’ll pay, Clean Water Baltimore has a useful map here (http://cleanwaterbaltimore.org/stormwaterfee.asp).

The law doesn’t factor in previous increases to restore the Chesapeake Bay, which includes the doubling of the ‘Flush Tax’ that occurred last year.. One question I have is whether or not the funding that is generated from this tax will be prone to raids for the sake of the general fund.

There’s a series of issues i take with this, but for now I’m going to point out two.

a) There are more fees that will come from this. Even if the program is a success, it will cost individual jurisdictions more in order to implement the program vis a vis inspectors and assessors. As owners increase and decrease their property, each jurisdiction will need to increase its bureaucracy size to monitor and adjust the fees if needed. In addition, a structure for appeals (which is mandated in the law) insures that each public works board will need more people to watch the watchmen.

In government, every idea comes with bureaucracy. This will be no different.

b) The rain tax has now opened the floodgates for more taxation in the name of the environment. While the rain tax (and the wind energy subsidization tax) survived to passage, there other bills that were instituted with the promise that it would help nature. One of these bills was for a five cent deposit fee for each bottle sold in the state of Maryland. Another bill sought to add a tax for plastic bags used in the state. Although these bills did not pass, it represents the tax based environmentalism that Maryland is beginning to implement. While the prospect of elections may keep the general assembly from pushing for more taxes in the 2014 session, increased spending is sadly unavoidable.

As citizens, we’d like to trust our leaders that our money is well respected and spent. However, Baltimore increasingly has failed to prove itself to be trustworthy. To continue to tax us despite it is an insult to every citizen that has chosen to make this city our home.

But hey, at least the Inner Harbor is finally getting more attention!

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