Baltimore Set To Be First Major US City to Ban Water Privatization

The Real News Network story analyzes the Baltimore city council’s decision to reject the privatisation fairy as a solution to fix the city’s troubled water and sewage system. Supporters of the charter amendment say that privatization would result in job loss and rate hikes because corporations have only one motive: profit and not the public good.

DR. ALVIN C. HATHAWAY: When God created heavens, he first created the water. So we want to make certain that water remains in the hands of the people of Baltimore City, now and forever.

DHARNA NOOR: Baltimore is on track to become the first major U.S. city to ban water privatization.

BERNARD C. “JACK” YOUNG: This bill is approved.

DHARNA NOOR: At a hearing on Monday, City Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution proposed by Council President Jack Young to ban the sale and lease of Baltimore’s troubled water and sewage systems.

BERNARD C. “JACK” YOUNG: Today this council stands here to say enough is enough. With the introduction of this charter amendment we’re closing the door on the possibility of privatizing Baltimore’s water and sewer systems.

DHARNA NOOR: Before the hearing, environmental advocates, council members, unions, and faith-based groups held a press conference in City Hall to drum up support.

RIANNA ECKEL: Water privatization, simply put, is unethical, immoral, and dangerous. Communities that have privatized their water systems see skyrocketing rates, lost jobs, and declined quality of service, because when corporations come in to run water and sewer systems, they have one goal and one goal only, and that is profit not the public good.

DHARNA NOOR: Among the attendees was Mayor Catherine Pugh, who originally proposed the charter amendment at the end of June.

CATHERINE PUGH: I don’t care how folks will double down when trying to buy our water system. It is not an option. It has never been an option under this ministration.

BERNARD C. “JACK” YOUNG: The mayor did, to her credit, have it in her package of charter amendments. But it was locked up with a lot of other stuff that we didn’t agree with, so we just picked out the stuff that we wanted and overlooked that piece.

DHARNA NOOR: If the mayor signs the amendment by August 13, the proposal will go before voters on the November ballot. If it passes, the resolution will amend the city’s charter to preserve public ownership and control over water and sewage systems.

BERNARD C. “JACK” YOUNG: I’m confident the voters in November will overwhelmingly approve this change to the city’s charter that would prevent the destruction of Baltimore water system.

DHARNA NOOR: This would be the first charter amendment of its kind in the country, and the first major citywide ban on water privatization.

RIANNA ECKEL: The first city in the country to do this was the city of Northampton, Massachusetts. But Baltimore is the first major city in the country to take this proactive measure.

DHARNA NOOR: This comes during a crisis of water affordability and accessibility in Baltimore. The city’s sewage system is a century old, and creates major challenges for residents. Under federal consent decree, Baltimore must spend $1.6 billion to repair it. The city says this prompted them to raise water and sewerage bills by 33% over the past three years. Eckel says that if the city’s water were privatized, they’d go up even more.

RIANNA ECKEL: It’s been an enormous amount. The rates have quadrupled in, I think, the past 16 years. We know that the rates are going up a lot, but you know, they’re not going up and adding inflation for corporate profits, inflation for CEOs, inflation for people who are running a corporation.

DHARNA NOOR: City officials have maintained that they’re not trying to privatize the water delivery system.

KURT KOCHER: There are absolutely no plans for privatization.

DHARNA NOOR: But this hasn’t eased fear amongst anti-privatization advocates; especially because last year, lobbyists pitched handing over control of the water system to Suez Environment, a French utility company.

GLEN MIDDLETON: These companies coming in from Europe and other places trying to privatize our water, outsource our jobs, and take take away our jobs from these hardworking public works employees.

RIANNA ECKEL: Water privatization companies have been circling Baltimore ever since 1997. So we’ve seen them really push even harder in the last few years. Veolia was trying to come in in 2014. Suez has been coming in and trying to pitch the city on a 50-year concession lease.

DHARNA NOOR: Advocates say that water privatization would mean a loss of jobs.

GLEN MIDDLETON: And nationally they have said whenever you privatize a contract or outsource, we in AFSCME know that we lose 30-40% of the workforce. These are workers that live, 95% of our workers of AFSCME Local 44 and Housing Authority live in the city of Baltimore.

DHARNA NOOR: And are concerned that it could exacerbate inequality.

RIANNA ECKEL: What they will do is they tend to cut corners when it comes to materials. They will use cheaper pipes, or they will do less maintenance. They will cherry pick areas where they will prioritize maintenance, and that tends to be in predominantly white neighborhoods. So communities of color and low-income communities get left behind.

DHARNA NOOR: They say that the federal government’s antagonism toward public utilities makes this proposal even more historic.

RIANNA ECKEL: Trump’s infrastructure plan has this and essentially incentivized cities to privatize their water system by increasing matching federal funds for cities that will. And so I think this really is a rebuke to that, and to say that we are opposing any and all privatization is so powerful, especially in a climate that’s handing out benefits to corporations left and right.

GLEN MIDDLETON: This bill right here is going to galvanize all of us to work together to make sure we can show them on this local level in Baltimore City, that we can carry this throughout the state and throughout the country, so we can tell people like President Donald Trump to stop privatizing, outsourcing, and contracting out our jobs.

DHARNA NOOR: For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.

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  1. Eclair

    Good for Baltimore! And for being blunt about the costs of ‘privatization:’ loss of jobs, declining service in low-income communities vs higher income areas (POC vs white, usually), a focus on profit-generation rather than on the public good.

    But they are facing an uphill battle. Like other declining or gutted northeastern formerly-industrial cities, they have ancient, difficult to access infrastructure, a hard-to-maintain tax base and face the neoliberal spite campaign against public service employees everywhere.

    The dominant narrative since the 1970’s has been ‘privatization will control costs and provide better services than a corrupt and inefficient local government.’ We have to change that to ‘local communities run services for the good of everyone in the community, as well as generating good paying jobs for you and your neighbors.’ And make it clear that ‘for-profit utilities exist to suck money from local communities and transfer it to a few wealthy out-of-town fat cats.’

    1. HotFlash

      Indeed! I tell people here, “With government, you have a right to know what they are doing and a way to find it out. If some corrupt pol is bagging a few $10k he shouldn’t, s/he goes to prison. With private corps, the money is being pumped out of town, maybe out of the country, they don’t have to tell you anything, and if the CEO is making $20 million, you can go whistle.”

      TLDR Local govt corruption is a few hundred K max, private corps it’s millions.

  2. Raynor86

    Baltimore is not exactly the best run city in the US, so unsure they will be able to deliver. They sure have failed their residents in many other areas. Privatization is not a silver bullet, but neither is making it 100% government run. In either case, there needs to be accountability in order to meet the people’s needs. The problem is that bureaucrats and corporations are rarely accountable….

    1. j84ustin

      At least by keeping it publicly owned there is some level of accountability – elections.

      1. Raynor86

        That has worked so well with the infrastructure and crime problems in Baltimore. In a single party system, there is no choice come election day and no accountability.

        1. False Solace

          Maybe the opposition party could try to figure out why they appeal so little to residents. Except that I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose.

    2. Eclair

      ” X is not exactly the best run city in the US …,” seems to have become the label we stick on so many failing and decrepit old municipalities. It places the blame for high unemployment, empty factories, declining tax base, potholed streets, graffiti scrawled buildings, drug-related crime, high mortality rates, obesity, low high school graduation rates , the entire downward spiral of our urban areas, on to the ‘corrupt’ local governments.

      Did we ever have a national industrial policy that kept necessary industries and the their jobs in the city that grew up around them? As well as a national environmental policy that forced the dirtiest of these industries to clean up? A national policy, so that industries could not just pick up and move to a more accommodating state? And, finally, to a more accommodating country?

      I think not.

      Instead, we have rotting hulks of once flourishing cities, where those who can have up and left and those who have ties to the area somehow scrape along. And the city managers try to stick their fingers in the leaking dikes. And we dump on all of them in an orgy of victim-blaming; they’re shiftless, dumb, corrupt, drug-addicted losers.

      I constantly wonder just how the city we live in now could have changed so drastically in a few generations from a wondrous place peopled by ‘hard-working’ immigrants who happily toiled 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and whose children were well-dressed, well-behaved, eager for education.

  3. MaxFinger

    Our unfair city has just passed legislation to review the water board to see if improvements can be made with a public-private partnership/scam. It starting Aug.1, 2018.
    The official here, state rep, thought it would be great to respond to their donor class. Just another example of crumbling infrastructure being sold to the lowest bidder, to be paid for by the local citizens. ugh!

  4. Winslow P. Kelpfroth

    and yet private water and wastewater systems do exist and operate successfully. Hundreds of them in Texas alone, generally in small communities of less than 150 connections. (at one time I conducted their periodic safety tests).

    1. tegnost

      aren’t those privately owned by the users of the systems? I know that to be the case for many r/o systems in the san juan islands. I don’t think that kind of private ownership correlates with the topic of the post.

    1. Eclair

      Whoops! This should be a ‘reply’ to M. Kelpfroth. It links to an 2011 article on small Texas private water companies. Rushing out the door (helping out with oat straw baling before more rain!) will do that.

    1. False Solace

      Maybe they could stop enforcing a policy of drug prohibition that’s failed for 50 years. I think I remember a TV show about that. It was even set in Baltimore.

    2. BigUnc

      Would you be refering to the Baltimore City Police Dept. when you referred to private armies in the ghetto? btw you’re off topic.

  5. Jeff N

    I was in Baltimore a couple weeks back. When I’m there, I usually use the Light Rail to get around. However, the light rail was shut down between the airport (far south) and the mid-south-side, because of recent flooding having eroded the train tracks.
    While I was searching for information about the replacement shuttle bus service, I found this article which surprised me; having light-rail access in one’s neighborhood is IMO a desirable thing.

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