Baltimore water discount program short of meeting need of tens of thousands of families

As Baltimore continues to raise its water rates for city customers, the public works department has set a goal of doubling enrollment in discount programs to help the poor and the elderly.

But even if the city hit that target — and records show it is not close — it would be missing tens of thousands who could qualify for reduced monthly bills.

Nationwide, water rate increases are outpacing inflation, pushing bills to levels in the next five years that researchers say could become unaffordable for one in three U.S. households. In Baltimore, rates are scheduled to rise this summer and again next summer, doubling the cost of water in just eight years.

Baltimore officials say they’re eager for needy customers to sign up for the discount programs. Critics say they’re not doing enough to make that happen.

Adding urgency: Customers who fail to pay their water bills may eventually lose their homes to tax sale.

“It’s definitely clear that a lot of people have no idea that discounts are available,” said City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who represents West Baltimore. “In my position, we take a lot of those calls for help. I am very well aware of the impact that the rates have had on people.

“When you talk about the prospect of a tax sale, it is deeply troubling.”

Officials say they are in a bind: Rate increases are necessary to fix the city’s century-old water infrastructure and pay for more than $2 billion in federally required repairs to stop sewage from entering the city’s waterways. But the increases have made it more difficult for Baltimore’s sizable low-income population to make the payments.

The city offers three discount programs to help the poor pay their water bills. Officials have set a goal of enrolling 10 percent of customers — roughly 20,000 water accounts.

But at most, public works figures show, 8,800 water accounts are…

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