October 12, 2020
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
More than one in five Baltimore residents meets the federal definition of poverty, and the city’s water rates have more than doubled in the last decade. Its aging sewer system is proving costly, undergoing $1.6 billion in federally mandated repairs. For large metro areas, the Queen City also has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, which is a risk factor for pipe leaks.
Together, it is a recipe for residents having high and unaffordable water bills and an indicator that many households might be in debt to the water department. But how many? It is hard to say.
A public records request submitted to the Baltimore Department of Public Works, the agency that handles water supply and billing, did not yield any results.
“DPW does not have custody or control of a record that captures the past due balances by the breakdowns you are seeking,” Jennifer Combs, a spokesperson, wrote to Circle of Blue. She went on to say that the department does not have the “proper personnel or resources to devote to creating and analyzing the data that would be necessary to respond to your questions.”
Combs’ response indicated another potential data source: the Department of Finance.
A subsequent public records request to the Department of Finance also ended in a roadblock. The department said it did not have data on customer water debt. Henry Raymond, the department director, suggested a U-turn.
“That data resides with DPW,” Raymond told Circle of Blue.
DPW ignored subsequent requests for data and declined to be interviewed for this story.
For legal advocates working in Baltimore, this exchange is not a surprise. In fact, obfuscation and delay seem to be standard practice for the Department of Public Works.
“In terms of how many people have extremely high water bills or leaks, that’s the type of info that all of us have tried to request from DPW and haven’t gotten very satisfactory responses from them,” Margaret Henn, the director of program management for Maryland Volunteer Legal Services, told Circle of Blue. Henn helps low-income Baltimore residents resolve water bill disputes.
Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, executive director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, said that there are relatively few requirements in Maryland and nationally for utilities to publish information on customer debt levels or the number of customers disconnected from water service.
“There isn’t a lot of transparency with respect to the challenges certain families face in affording their water bills,” Campbell-Ferrari told Circle of Blue.
The scope of those challenges is becoming clearer. A Circle of Blue investigation of public water utility finances found that more than 1.5 million residential customers in a dozen large U.S. cities owed more than $1.1 billion in past-due bills. The data was collected largely before the Covid-19 put millions of people out of work. In the last six months cities have seen the number of past-due accounts soar. Customer debt is now undoubtedly higher. Louisville Water, to cite one example, typically has about 2,000 customers with overdue bills. Now, about 16,700 are behind.
Who is in debt? Are they mostly struggling families? Or are relatively well-off households forgetting to pay their bills? Are there pockets of water debt concentrated in certain areas of the city? Or is it scattered among neighborhoods?
Based on the responses from public records requests and interviews with water researchers, answering these sorts of questions is difficult with the data and analysis that utilities are currently bringing to the table.
“The problem exists across the country,” said Campbell-Ferrari, who encountered a similar lack of data when completing a report on water shutoff policies in Maryland.