Baltimore’s water system has been publicly owned for over 100 years. In 2018, the Baltimore City Council and the public at large amended the City Charter to proactively protect public ownership into the future. It’s the first major city to do so.
The measure was prompted by a mounting concern on the part of members of city council that Baltimore’s public water system could be sold to private interests as a way of addressing the growing list of needed repairs and substantial aging infrastructure. Instead, City decision-makers recognized that the water system was one of the its largest assets, and that an essential public good like water should remain in public ownership. The public agreed, and approved the charter amendment by a sweeping 77%.
With this change to the Charter, the City’s water and sewer systems are “inalienable”—i.e., these systems cannot be sold to private entities. But the Charter does not necessarily preclude the City from engaging private companies to perform certain tasks. For example, a private company provides billing services.
Public ownership is not the end of the story. Water affordability was a key tenet of the campaign to keep the system publicly owned. While Baltimore has high quality drinking water, years of underinvestment fueled by a reluctance to raise rates put the City in a challenging situation. City leaders need to raise rates to fund much needed infrastructure improvements. But at the same time the City needs to ensure water remains affordable for all.
Proponents of public ownership aimed to find ways for the City to address these affordability challenges. And over the past decade, at least three of Baltimore’s mayors were willing to increase water rates in an effort to catch up on deferred investments. In July 2019, the City set a 3-year water and sewer rate increase of 9% per year through 2022. At the same time, Baltimore is navigating the complicated issue of revising its customer assistance programs to make them more equitable and affordable for the City’s economically disadvantaged residents who are still, as of 2022, vulnerable to water shutoffs or the sale of properties for non-payment of a water bill. The Water Accountability & Equity Act adopted by Baltimore City Council in 2019 is expected to lead to reforms to these practices.
Baltimore’s proactive approach provides an example for other communities that may face future efforts to transfer a publicly owned system to a private company.
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