Certain members of Baltimore’s City Council are questioning what the Department of Public Works is doing to rectify recently revealed collections issues. In October, WBALTV learned that a condo project had received only one bill despite being open for nearly 10 years. Councilman Zeke Cohen spoke about the ongoing problems.
“Many large institutions were underbilled while our constituents in some cases were overbilled or weren’t billed for an extended period of time and then faced massive bills.”
City officials have admitted that hundreds of customers are receiving water despite not being billed for the service. An audit of the city’s water billing system is being carried out in an attempt to find out how bad the problem is. Members of the City Council want to know what happened, how the Department is collecting the lost money, and what the agency will do to prevent similar problems in the future.
Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Jack Young explained, “The original water meter was installed, but consumption accounts were never created in the old billing system and never manually read, like the Ritz.” The statement went on to say that some accounts were never properly migrated from the old system to the new system.
According to lawyers representing condo owners at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, their clients had been asking the Department for water and sewage bills between 2009 and 2017 so they could “pay their fair share”. Another attorney claimed representatives of the council of unit owners contacted the public works department “several times” by phone and letter since they were not receiving a water bill despite the meter being installed in 2007.
The attorneys go on to say that a preliminary review found relevant communications as early as 2007. The city alleges that the condo owners owe approximately $2.3 million but the condo owners have not agreed with that estimate.
The Department of Public Works has assembled a plan that it believes will solve the problem and account for the unbilled customers. That process has two components with the first involving someone from the meter shop going out to verify that the meter has been installed and that an account has been created for consumption.
Subsequently, administrative staff will need to verify that the meter is operating properly. Officials have confirmed that 800 accounts or locations have been examined. Of those 800, it has been found that 240 had been off the billing system while 560 accounts have questionable billing.
For instance, John Hopkins Hospital has 38 water meters with only 16 accounts. The audit is expected to be completed by May. This is not the first time the Department of Public Works has faced criticism.
In mid-July, a group of protesters descended on City Hall to protest rate hikes. The rate hikes will be carried out in a series of three separate hikes. The 9% increases to water, wastewater, and stormwater charges were implemented to help the city make infrastructure improvements and fund Baltimore H20 Assists which is a customer assistance program.
The water billing support program combines elements of existing programs including fee waivers, income-based eligibility, and rate reductions and it supposedly can assist customers before they fall behind on their bills.
The first 9% increase went into effect on July 1, 2019. Another will follow on July 1, 2020 with the last coming on July 1, 2021. The Department of Public Works admitted the 30% rate increase package was a burden on rate payers but concluded it needed to be done to help the city pay for infrastructure improvements.
Consumers can learn more about the fees on their Baltimore water bill by visiting the website of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.