City votes to spend more on contract to fix system of charging for water use
Baltimore officials are preparing to spend another $6 million to fix the city’s water-billing system, raising the cost of the project by 70 percent. The Board of Estimates is expected to approve an increase to the contract with a Belgian company. The cost to taxpayers will rise from $8.4 million to $14.4 million.
Baltimore officials are preparing to spend another $6 million to fix the city’s error-ridden water-billing system, raising the cost of the project by 70 percent.
The city’s Board of Estimates today is expected to approve an increase to the contract signed in 2014 with a Belgian company that is overhauling the outdated system. The cost to taxpayers will rise from $8.4 million to $14.4 million.
City officials say the $6 million contract amendment is needed for additional “IT support to supplement and assist the city staff” during implementation of the new system.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has closely watched water-billing issues, said she continues to receive complaints from constituents about erroneous bills.
“People are very upset, as they should be, when their bills don’t make sense to them — based on their usage, experience and history,” she said.
Itineris, whose North American offices are in Marietta, Ga., was the sole bidder to upgrade billing for approximately 410,000 water customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. The 10-year contract — which lasts until 2024 — will pay for new software and technology to replace the city’s 35-year-old billing system.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the overhaul of the billing system, officials say they plan to switch from a quarterly billing cycle to monthly bills starting Oct. 11.
Customers have long complained about erroneous water bills, but the issue gained widespread attention in 2012 when the city auditor found the Department of Public Works had overcharged thousands of homes and businesses by at least $9 million.
An investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered additional problems, including a $100,000 overbilling of Cockeysville Middle School and a Randallstown woman who’d been receiving her neighbor’s bills for seven years. The city also acknowl- edged that some workers made up meter readings used to calculate bills.
Clarke said she noticed improvements as the city began to address the problem, but recently noticed an uptick in complaints.
“Things seemed to settle down for a while, until the new water meters were installed,” she said. “As that process proceeded, we began to receive more and more complaints. Right now, I have a lot of complaints from the Guilford neighborhood.”
Owings Mills resident Ariel Haberman, who is suing the city over what he alleges is $7,800 in overbillings for a West Baltimore rowhouse he owns, said he is not confident the money spent on the overhaul will result in improvements.
Haberman said he has repeatedly received bills in excess of $1,000 that he believes are wrong. He said he had the house inspected for leaks and received a certificate that there were none, but city officials have declined to reduce his bills.
“I’ve always thought the bills were faulty,” he said. “Is the new system going to change things? Unfortunately, I’m very pessimistic about it.”
Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted in August to increase water rates by 9.9 percent a year for the next three years and charge two new fees. The board also agreed to eliminate minimum usage fees.
Public Works Director Rudy Chow said in a statement that the new billing system will be friendlier to users.
“The new rate structure will be fairer than ever before,” he said. “Minimal usage charges will be a thing of the past, and customers can save money through conservation.”
The Itineris deal is one of several major contacts awarded as part of an effort to end what Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called “outrageous” water bill mistakes.
Beyond the ongoing fixes to the billing system, the city has awarded an $83.5 million contract to Itron Inc. of Washington state to install new wireless meters; $9.7 million more to hire contractor EMA Inc. to “ensure that the program moves forward efficiently and expeditiously;” $36 million for the purchase of the new meters; and more than $20 million for urgent infrastructure work discovered during the installation of meters.
The latest contracts bring the total cost of the project to more than $160 million.