Usually, when you see someone making a mistake, and if you’re relatively intelligent, you try hard not to replicate that mistake. Because when you see that something doesn’t work or causes unnecessary harm or danger, then the normal reflex is to head in the other direction. Try something else. Try something that works.
Which is why I’m having a rather hard time understanding why it is that the City of Baltimore has apparently made the decision to follow in the footsteps of my adopted hometown Detroit and is shutting off the water in poor peoples’ homes for falling behind on their bills while allowing the larger – and significantly wealthier – corporations and businesses to slide on by. Even though they are the ones most responsible for the related deficit that the city currently finds itself in.
From Think Progress:
Food and Water Watch researcher Mary Grant explained that making water unavailable to residents is a major health risk, and that if Baltimore were to deprive 25,000 households of water, diseases would have a high chance of propagating throughout densely-populated neighborhoods.
“There is direct risk associated with lack of access to water,” Grant told ThinkProgress. “When you lose your water service, you lose water to wash your hands to flush the toilet, there is risk of disease spreading.”
City officials like Department of Public Works director Rudy Chow claim that residents using water without paying are to blame for the $40 million in overdue water bills. In fact, the Baltimore Sun found more than a third of the unpaid bills stem from just 369 businesses, who owe $15 million in revenue, while government offices and nonprofits have outstanding water bills to the tune of $10 million. One of those businesses, RG Steel (now bankrupt) owes $7 million in delinquent water bills all by itself.
I’m not completely on the side of those who claim that water is a human right and therefore should be free. This populist philosophy applies if you’re drinking water out of a stream, or trapping rainwater, but once you involve the services of a water treatment plant, built and operated by people who need to get paid, then the free water argument pretty much goes out the window. So forget free.
However. And this is a truly large ‘however’.
Fairness and decency do matter in this world. And allowing poor families to go without water because they don’t have sufficient resources to keep up on their bills while turning a blind eye to those who, no doubt, have somebody’s ear in a vice grip at City Hall due to ocean deep pockets, is not exactly what any sane person would characterize as fair. So after all the protests and the negative press that Detroit got last year for shutting off the water to poor people while also letting far wealthier clients off the hook, how is it that Baltimore thinks they can get away with this? Especially when Detroit was forced to change course and do the right thing because the wrong thing didn’t work? From the March 16, 1015 online edition of The Detroit News:
The city’s water department this week plans to step up enforcement of overdue business accounts to collect tens of millions in lost revenue, but it won’t shut off residential water until a proven safety net is in place.
Although there are 26,000 residential accounts with outstanding balances, officials said they will target commercial accounts first.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is seeking compliance from 2,044 delinquent commercial accounts to avoid shut-offs. Those customers owe DWSD about $20 million, said Bill Nowling, spokesman for a new regional water authority set to go into effect in July.
So just do the right thing, Baltimore. Save yourself a few steps.
Keith Owens (AKA Black Liberal Boomer) is a Detroit-based writer who has worked for The Detroit Free Press, Detroit’s alternative newsweekly the Metro Times, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, and other newspapers. He was also a nationally syndicated columnist with Universal Press Syndicate for three years beginning in 1993.