Baltimore is poised to become the largest city in the U.S. to ban the privatization of its sewer and water utilities to lock them under public ownership.
City council for the city of about 700,000 residents voted in favour of the ban on August 6, but the landmark charter amendment still faces a citizen vote in November.
“The city’s water and sewer system is a priceless asset for the citizens of Baltimore and I am determined to do everything possible to protect this vital resource and ensure that it remains reliable, clean, and plentiful,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced on social media after the council vote. “As such, I’m delighted that the city council is supportive of my earlier efforts to safeguard Baltimore City’s water system and require that it is always operated in the best interests of those who rely on it, and for generations to come,” she added.
The move towards the ban on the lease or sale of the water system comes on the heels of private operators in the Baltimore area displaying interest in the city’s system, as well as France-based company Suez Environnement’s attempt to lobby the local government in 2017 for a takeover of the water system. Suez offered to pay the city upfront to take control of operating the water system and then collect the money charged from water bills, pledging to hire current Department of Public Works employees, honour union contracts, and raise water rates only minimally.
Suez was also critical of Baltimore for rejecting the offer without what it says was appropriate study. Still, Baltimore city council has expressed concern that if its water system was privatized it could lead to skyrocketing customer rates, lost jobs for city workers, and a sense of uncertainty over a profit-minded corporation being in charge of a vital resource.
In 2014, residents rallied at Baltimore’s city hall against the potential privatization of its water utilities.
U.S.-based Food and Water Watch advocacy group conducted a comprehensive survey of the 500 largest U.S. water systems and found that private systems charge 58% more than public systems on average, equivalent to an extra $185 a year for a typical household.
In 2016, the small city of Northampton, Massachusetts, passed legislation prohibiting the sale or lease of its water system.