Blame se­na­tors for city’s wa­ter woes

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Richard J. Dou­glas Richard J. Dou­glas (Twit­ter: @richard­j­dou­glas, an at­tor­ney in Prince Ge­orge’s County) was a wa­ter bill me­di­a­tor in Bal­ti­more City for nearly two years. He ran for the U.S. Se­nate in Mary­land in 2012 and 2016.

In May 2016, Bal­ti­more’s tax auc­tion list was over 20,000 prop­er­ties long. Hun­dreds of the tax liens are trace­able to one cause: sky­rock­et­ing Bal­ti­more wa­ter bills, a dis­as­ter caused in part by an al­liance among the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice, Mary­land’s De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment (MDE), and the fed­eral court that gaveled the 2002 waste­water de­cree into be­ing.

In 2002, en­vi­ron­men­tal bu­reau­crats and the court teamed up to force Bal­ti­more res­i­dents to com­mit hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars they do not have to mod­ern­iz­ing Bal­ti­more’s sewage and storm wa­ter sys­tems. The city wa­ter de­part­ment’s 2015 an­nual re­port in­di­cates that in just one year, cap­i­tal out­lays needed for this mas­sive un­funded fed­eral man­date ex­ceeded $400 mil­lion, with the work barely half-done.

Stop­ping rivers of sewage in the streets is vi­tal, and Bal­ti­more’s an­ti­quated in­fra­struc­ture must be re­placed. But fed­eral courts do not have au­thor­ity to ap­pro­pri­ate funds to pay for their own or­ders. In­stead, Bal­ti­more’s poor, el­derly and hourly wageearn­ers are foot­ing the lion’s share of the mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture re­pair bill from their nest eggs, pen­sions or pay­checks.

Since 2002, Bal­ti­more’s stoic cit­i­zens have en­dured noth­ing less than an en­vi­ron­men­tal state of siege by bu­reau­crats and judges that has de­stroyed fam­i­lies, small busi­nesses and in­ner-city churches. Un­der the one-two punch of Martin O’Mal­ley’s “rain tax” (still col­lected in Bal­ti­more), and higher wa­ter rates at­trib­ut­able to the fed­eral waste­water de­cree, the city’s most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents live a shock­ing fi­nan­cial night­mare. Thou­sands of them have lost mod­est but hard-earned row­houses or other dwellings be­cause of it.

Few Amer­i­can cities are hurt more than Bal­ti­more by en­vi­ron­men­tal zeal and leg­isla­tive sloth. What have Mary­land’s “tri­bunes of the peo­ple” in Congress done to help? Noth­ing. The lat­est in­stall­ment of “noth­ing” came Sept. 15, when the U.S. Se­nate passed a wa­ter re­sources bill that pro­tects Ch­e­sa­peake Bay oys­ters but not Ch­e­sa­peake Bay peo­ple crushed by Bal­ti­more wa­ter rates. Mary­land’s U.S. Sen­a­tor Ben Cardin took a vic­tory lap any­way.

In fact, nei­ther of Mary­land’s U.S. se­na­tors has bro­ken a sweat to ease the bur­den of the 2002 ju­di­cial order on Bal­ti­more res­i­dents. Their in­ac­tion is even more as­ton­ish­ing whenwe re­call that one of them held the na­tion’s purse strings in her hands for three years as Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee chair. Bal­ti­more’s wa­ter rate night­mare thus of­fers an­other ex­am­ple of Mary­land’s third-rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress. The con­gres­sional record of fail­ure to pro­tect Mary­land’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple is in­ex­cus­able. But it is the Mary­land norm.

What would ag­gres­sive, du­ti­ful Mary­land mem­bers of Congress do? They would use all of the pow­er­ful leg­isla­tive tools at their dis­posal to put sig­nif­i­cant fed­eral money into Bal­ti­more’s storm wa­ter/sewage in­fra­struc­ture. They would pull the EPA claws from Bal­ti­more’s throat. They would find a way to have Bal­ti­more de­clared a wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture dis­as­ter area. They would open, and if nec­es­sary cre­ate, doors to re­lief for Bal­ti­more renters and home­own­ers fac­ing out-of-sight wa­ter bills.

In Novem­ber, Mary­lan­ders in Congress too timid to in­sist on na­tional in­vest­ment in Bal­ti­more’s waste­water in­fra­struc­ture should be booted un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously from of­fice. The Port of Bal­ti­more serves com­merce across half the na­tion. Na­tional in­vest­ment in the city is per­fectly de­fen­si­ble.

In May, Bal­ti­more’s tax lien auc­tion list was 92 pages long. A month later, bu­reau­crats and the court ex­tended the ju­di­cial waste­water de­cree for 15 years, once again with no fund­ing mech­a­nism. In August, with a ju­di­cial re­volver at its head, Bal­ti­more’s Board of Es­ti­mates au­tho­rized an­other ma­jor in­crease in city wa­ter and sewer rates. In Septem­ber, the U.S. Se­nate passed a wa­ter re­sources bill that re­lieved none of the pres­sure on Bal­ti­more. There­after, the pres­i­dent signed a con­tin­u­ing ap­pro­pri­a­tions mea­sure with the same de­fect.

An­gry en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists com­plain about the pace of Bal­ti­more’s waste­water re­pairs. Many blame the city. But Mary­land’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion hasn’t moved a mus­cle to help, and thou­sands of city res­i­dents have lost their homes at tax sale in the bar­gain. Ac­tivists are an­gry at the wrong peo­ple.

Mary­land’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion has got­ten away with murder. At best, they in­tro­duce “fire and for­get” de­coy wa­ter mea­sures with no co-spon­sors, no hear­ings and no prospects for pas­sage. But like Sen­a­tor Cardin, they con­grat­u­late them­selves any­way. For the con­tin­u­ing night­mare vis­ited upon Bal­ti­more by the fed­eral waste­water de­cree, Mary­land leg­is­la­tors with a shred of in­tegrity would hide their faces in shame in­stead.

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