Read Stories to Understand How Water Injustice Directly Impacts Our Communities
Ms. Brown, Community member in Baltimore, MD
It all started last year when my neighbor came over, asking if my house was up for sale. I told her no, that must be a mistake. She had the paper in her hand, flipped to the section with the list of properties that were up for tax sale and there it was. The home I have lived in for nearly 30 years was listed for sale at $1,532.50, the amount I owed on my water bill.
Years ago, I was injured at my job with the Baltimore City Public Schools, and was forced to leave my job with a pinched nerve and a herniated disk. Now, I live on my disability check, which is less than a thousand dollars a month. As my water bills have skyrocketed, I just haven’t been able to keep up. Between my mortgage, my car payments, my electric bills, my water bills and buying groceries, my budgeting has become a nightmare. Costs are going up, but the amount I get from disability certainly isn’t. I want to pay all my bills, I am trying to pay all my bills but my fixed income makes that nearly impossible.
Finally, I received my tax sale notice letter. It said: “The real property taxes and/or other municipal liens on the above property in your name, are delinquent in the amount of $1,532.50. … The liens on your property are scheduled for the May 15th, 2017 web-based Tax Sale auction.”
When I called the Department of Finance, they gave me the runaround for two days. Each person I talked to would say I needed to talk to someone else, and I couldn’t get any answers from them.
I went downtown to try and solve this. I waited for two and a half hours to try and speak to someone, and apply for any discount programs I could to save money on my water bill. When I finally was called up, the woman told me it was too late to process any applications, and that I should come back the next day. I went back again, waited three hours.
The woman told me that in order to save my house, I would have to pay $98 a month as a catch-up payment, and an additional $298 a month for that month’s bill. When I added it up and realized that they were asking for $400 a month, I couldn’t believe it. There’s no way to squeeze $400 for a water bill while living on less than $1,000 a month.
I told the woman I couldn’t afford to pay nearly half my income for my water bill. She said to me, “Ms. Brown, I don’t want to stress you out, but it’s not our problem if you can’t afford your bill. You’re overdue.”
Ultimately, I had to turn to my family for help, and my brother’s generosity to pay my water bills saved my home. I was lucky he was able to afford this, and I know many people in similar situations don’t have the same possibility for help. This has been beyond overwhelming for me. I still owe the Department of Public Works, and I worry I can face tax sale again in the future. I am trying to work out a payment plan with them, and take any preventative measures.
Kimberly, Community member in Baltimore, MD
In August 2019, we received a high water bill for 4 months of usage. We paid the full amount ($500) immediately. But in September we received another bill for the same amount of usage. Upon calling DPW [Department of Public Works] to discuss, we were told that we used 28 CCF in 30 days, coincidentally the same amount we had used in the 4 months prior. We disputed the bill, and had a master plumber come to our house to inspect for leaks. He said there were no leaks.
Around this same time (Fall of 2019) we discovered/reported a developing sink hole at our intersection, our home being the closest to the sink hole. DPW was informed of this and has yet to come scope the line to find/repair the leak, as of July of 2020. BGE [Baltimore Gas & Electric] also came out to investigate a nearby gas leak and discovered, upon opening our water meter in front of our home, that it smells like a sewer. DPW was informed of this and has done nothing. They claim that there is nothing wrong with our water meter.
Through all this I have kept our councilman’s office in the loop. They have contacted DPW multiple times on our behalf to no avail. Despite paying the current monthly charges of approximately $80 a month, our balance stands at $500.
In retrospect, our average monthly usage is 4 CCF. Times that by 4 months and that September 2019 bill should have been around 16 CCF. But it was nearly double that.
Our most recent bill (current charges) was for $89. $15 of that was actual water usage, while $40 was for sewer. The rest is all fees: Account management fee, Bay restoration fee, Stormwater fee, and – the one I take the most issue with – the Infrastructure fee. Supposedly this fee is to help fund the upkeep and repair of our infrastructure. But it feels like a slap in the face when we have spent nearly a year waiting for our intersection to collapse due to a sink hole they refuse to address.
It is fast becoming a concern that if these increases continue, our water bill may become a struggle to pay. As it is we have a balance being forwarded month-to-month of $430 that we can not afford to pay, for a leak we never had.
Our ongoing issue and many others like it are why we need legislation to ensure affordable water. The only way we could afford to pay these unfair charges would be to not buy groceries for a couple months, or sacrifice making a car payment or some other monthly bill. If rates continue to rise we may be forced to make similar choices in order to pay our regular monthly bill.
Gina Luster, Flint, MI (credit Flint Rising)
Nikole Morris, Athens OH and Senator Sherrod Brown (credit The Real News Network)
Interfaith Power and Light leaders Rev. Michael Malcom and Rev. Dallas Conyers and Senator Jeff Merkley (credit The Real News Network)
Maria Belen – Power and Senator Elizabeth Warren (credit The Real News Network)
Valeria, Community member in Baltimore, MD
My water billing woes started in November of 2016 when I received a water bill in the amount of $1,333.33 dollars. I was alarmed at this amount as before this date I had no previous outstanding bill with Baltimore DPW [Department of Public Works]. My typical quarterly bill would range from 180 dollars a quarter to 200 dollars a quarter. But when I received my Nov 2016 bill, I realized I was being charged 200 dollars a month not a quarter.
I kept receiving bills for monthly usage that exceeded 200 dollars for February and March now that the water billing system changed to issuing monthly instead of quarterly bills. In this time, I contacted my Councilman’s Office to tell him and his staff about the outrageous bills I had been receiving since Nov 2016. In 2017 a maintenance worker came out to my property to find the nature of the leak at my meter which to my knowledge was on the city side. He could not figure it out and left about an hour into the investigation. I kept receiving bills and sending copies to my councilman’s office and contesting the bills as being erroneous. At the end of 2017 the amount I owed to DPW for the contested water usage at my property was approximately $3,800.00.
At the end of 2018 the amount that was back-owed to DPW was $6,871.41. In addition, DPW tried to initiate two liens on my property (One in April and one in November) for the erroneous past amounts due to them. In April 2019, the amount I owed to DPW was $8,549.13… When I received my May 2020 bill an additional $8,899 was added to the $8,549, I already owed from the past three years, so the grand total I owed them for the past 4 years was $17,300.80.
Mac, Community member and organizer in Norristown, PA
Ideally I see a public works system that systematically benefits the local community and its people; from the ground roots of educating our youth on water science and engineering, career paths directly out of local education programs, proactively adopting the science that improves water quality treatment into the future, furthermore creating an atmosphere of local pride towards water quality and those that maintain the water systems . I see this path as a great works project for this generation that ideally magnifies other equally important environmental issues.
The private interest vision is to consolidate many systems with the idea of profit first. Not only are investments and decisions based first on cost analysis and profit; but quality, local initiatives, identity, and accountability is lost with corporate take over. Government officials and environmental enforcement are more susceptible to corruption. We lose control over what we value and put that in the hands of those with concentrated wealth and motives that do not align with putting the public first.
The main problem is that water is an essential human right and there’s concentrated wealth seeking to capitalize on our basic human need for water. The infrastructure and continued maintenance has been paid for by the public. The public should ultimately decide if they want to release control of their public works to the private interest. However, the privatization campaigns are created and coordinated in such a way as to not involve the public. The legislators in my state of PA have legislated the yellow brick road towards purchasing public owned water utilities from distressed communities. I live in such a city and am currently coordinating with locals to stop the sale of our sewer system to Aqua America.
LaFanette, Community member and advocate, Pensacola, FL
My name is LaFanette Soles-Woods. I live in the community of Olive Heights, near the Wedgewood subdivision of Pensacola, Florida. Drinking water access is very important to my community. Most of the families in this area migrated here from Alabama in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. along with them came their animals and plants for food. Good water consumption is very important to my neighborhood as is water quality. If the water is bad, then everything that we grow to eat is bad (fruits, vegetables, and animals).
I think that quality drinking water and sanitation services should be provided by our local municipalities. We pay a lot of taxes and we as people have the right to have some place that we can live, work and play without worry. I believe that all citizens of the U.S. are entitled to quality drinking water and sanitation services.
One day, I would like to see that everyone in my community is able to get water testing at any time or have access to exactly what water station is supplying the water for our area and get up to date information on it.