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Can Banning Privatization Keep Water Cheap, Safe, and Flowing?

Baltimore voters are deciding whether to ban privatization of the water utility. But without the infusion of private investment, can cities continue to afford providing safe, inexpensive water?
The Montebello Water Filtration Plant in Baltimore.
The Montebello Water Filtration Plant in Baltimore.Matthew Gunby/AP

Privatizing a city’s water system tends to produce a dual outcome: Pipes, once rusty, get sleek; rates get steep. When water went private in Bayonne, New Jersey, local ratepayers started paying an extra 28 percent for water; and in Middletown, Pennsylvania, privatization meant an 11.5 percent surcharge (and officials are suing the utility to stop it).

This November, amid fears that their city will meet the same fate, voters in Baltimore will decide on a charter amendment that would ban water privatization preemptively. They’d be the first major city to do it.