The city of Baltimore has been a focal point of research on water affordability. Aging water infrastructure and fiscal problems have led the city’s public water utility to continually raise rates, producing an epidemic of water service shut-offs that disproportionately impact low-income residents. Last spring, Haleemah Qureshi published a Master’s thesis examining the financial and social circumstances driving Baltimore’s water crisis. Her research, titled Binding Civil and Civic Infrastructure: The Need for Transparency and Accountability in Baltimore’s Water Crisis, posits that greater engagement between utility officials and local citizens could help improve both the financial efficiency of the utility and the equity of water service for customers. Qureshi’s research is highly relevant to the ongoing policy debate in Baltimore as voters there prepare to decide on a proposal to prohibit privatization of the public water utility.
A summary of Qureshi’s thesis is reproduced below, and the full text is available here.
Binding Civil and Civic Infrastructure: The Need for Transparency and Accountability in Baltimore’s Water Crisis
In the absence of federal assistance to help fund essential infrastructure upgrades, public water utilities have increasingly relied on rate increases to generate revenue. This has led to “water crises” in cities like Baltimore and Detroit, where residents who cannot afford to pay fall behind on their bills and are faced with water service shutoffs. The health and welfare impacts of shutoffs on low-income residents has been severe and the scale of shutoffs in recent years unprecedented. Since water shutoffs represent both a social and a fiscal challenge, alleviating the problem will require greater engagement and deliberation between the government and the public. Reforms to increase transparency and accountability would help improve the strained relationship between the Baltimore Department of Public Works and its customers. Greater access to data and records would not only better serve customers, but would also improve the technical and financial efficiency of the utility’s operations. Thus, greater public engagement and deliberation would serve the Baltimore water department’s financial and infrastructure needs while also improving the equity of the system for customers.