WATER COSTS:

City votes to spend more on con­tract to fix sys­tem of charg­ing for water use

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Broad­wa­ter lbroad­wa­ter@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/ luke­broad­wa­ter

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.

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