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Baltimoreans gather outside City Hall to protest what they see as a first-step in an effort to privatize city water services. (Photo by Stacey Mink/Maryland Working Families)

Water price increases, diminution of services, and a loss of jobs are all at stake if Baltimore City goes through with a proposed consulting plan for its water and waste management services, according to a coalition of community advocates.

The One Baltimore Coalition, representing over 40 different organizations, is speaking out against a trend towards privatization that could increase costs for essential city services while simultaneously driving down local employment.

At issue is a bid by a French company, Veolia, to conduct an efficiency study of the city’s water and wastewater management services. To Glenn Middleton, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 44, such a study smells like a first step towards privatization.

“Our concern is in an efficiency study, Veolia brings in engineers, so why would they come in to do a study unless it’s a study for them to take over?” said Middleton.

Middleton wanted to know why the Department of Public Works, which oversees water and wastewater management, would reach out to a private company to study the needs of the city’s water services rather than consulting the employees who have been doing the job and are most familiar with its problems.

On Oct. 27, the One Baltimore Coalition held a rally at City Hall attended by nearly 500 people, according to Stacey Mink, communications director for Maryland Working Families, one of the member organizations of the One Baltimore Coalition.

According to Dr. Lester Spence, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins who spoke at the rally, there has been a tendency in American politics at all levels over the past several decades to adopt the perspective that the private sector can deliver services more efficiently than government and at less cost.

“What we find is that this isn’t true, that private forces aren’t more accountable, that they’re not more efficient in a number of cases, and that they cause a number of problems as far as delivering public goods,” said Spence. “They just don’t do it that well.”

Privatization is not just a water issue in Baltimore, said Spence, pointing to the proliferation of charter schools as an example of how the privatization ethos has begun to take over delivery of education in the city.

“There’s a growing tendency to make privatization the solution for a variety of ills that Baltimore faces,” said Spence.

For Rev. Al Hathaway of Union Baptist Church, it is this broader tendency of city residents being pushed into the hands of private corporations that compelled him to team up with the One Baltimore Coalition on this issue. Hathaway says his congregants began receiving communications from the city suggesting they insure their water pipes with a private company, confusing many of them as to why suddenly the city was asking them to buy insurance from a private entity.

“We’re looking at almost a first-step move (towards privatization) where we are now being asked to bear the burden of replacing the water pipes without knowing if that’s a real need,” said Hathaway.

According to Jennifer Combs, public information officer for the Baltimore City Dept. of Public Works, the department is simply looking to conduct a review of the city’s water and wastewater treatment plants in order to keep costs and rates reasonable.

“There is no plan, no intention, no desire to privatize the Baltimore City Department of Public Works or the outstanding water system that we operate,” Combs said in an e-mail to the AFRO. “DPW will remain accountable to its 1.8 million commercial and residential customers across the Baltimore region, to the citizens and taxpayers of Baltimore City, and to their elected representatives.”

Combs said that while the city has requested proposals for an external review, it is still reviewing proposals and no contract has been awarded as of yet.