Wa­ter-billing sys­tem be­gins with com­plaints of spik­ing to­tals

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Broad­wa­ter

Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials have be­gun to use a new monthly wa­ter-billing sys­tem that they say will cut down on hu­man er­ror and quickly alert users to costly leaks.

But as the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works tran­si­tions to the new sys­tem this week, res­i­dents — in­clud­ing many in North Bal­ti­more — say they’re be­ing hit with spik­ing bills.

The city sent out a bunch of bills in late Septem­ber to close out its cur­rent quar­terly billing sys­tem, and ac­knowl­edged that those bills would likely strike users as atyp­i­cal.

Steve Carey, 38, of Med­field said he had al­ready re­ceived three quar­terly wa­ter bills this year, then re­ceived a fourth for nearly $400. His typ­i­cal wa­ter bill is less than $140.

“It was to­tally out of the blue,” Carey said. “There’s some­thing def­i­nitely not right.”

His com­ments were echoed by many of his neigh­bors, who used the ad­jec­tives “astro­nom­i­cal,” “ridicu­lous” and “frus­trat-

ing” to de­scribe their lat­est wa­ter bills on a neigh­bor­hood so­cial me­dia web­site.

One woman said her bill spiked 30 per­cent. An­other said hers reached nearly $500 and she was “in the cor­ner hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing.” A third de­scribed her lat­est bill as “rob­bery.”

A spokesman for the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works said res­i­dents who have con­cerns about their bills should con­tact cus­tomer sup­port at 410-396-5398. He said it might ap­pear some bills are spik­ing be­cause the city sent out no bills dur­ing the month of Au­gust.

“It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that cus­tomers are billed for their us­age,” spokesman Jef­frey Ray­mond said. “The me­ter reads, which show the us­age, are in­de­pen­dent of the tran­si­tion to the new billing sys­tem. We’ve been get­ting au­to­mated reads from many of these me­ters for two years now.

“Again, if cus­tomers are con­cerned about high con­sump­tion fig­ures, they should get in touch with Cus­tomer Sup­port and Ser­vices to get an ex­pla­na­tion.”

City Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke said she’s hear­ing a high vol­ume of com­plaints, and has yet to hear an ad­e­quate ex­pla­na­tion for the spik­ing bills.

She said she sus­pects the prob­lems are “ge­o­graph­i­cal” in na­ture, and won­ders whether some of the Septem­ber bills were es­ti­mated.

Ray­mond said there has been no uptick in es­ti­mated bills.

“I’m try­ing to get an­swers,” Clarke said. “We will get this re­solved.”

The com­plaints come as the city is up­grad­ing its nearly four-decade-old billing sys­tem with what of­fi­cials say is “mod­ern, state-of-the-art soft­ware and hard­ware.” The city will be­gin mail­ing the new, monthly bills for Bal­ti­more cus­tomers in the mid­dle of next week.

Pub­lic Works Direc­tor Rudy S. Chow said the new tech­nol­ogy al­lows for au­to­mated, wire­less, hourly col­lec­tion of wa­ter con­sump­tion data.

“This is a very ex­cit­ing time for the City of Bal­ti­more,” Chow said in a state­ment. “It is vir­tu­ally un­prece­dented for a city, es­pe­cially one of Bal­ti­more’s size, to ... re­place its me­ter­ing and billing sys­tems si­mul­ta­ne­ously.”

The city is over­haul­ing its ag­ing wa­ter­billing and wa­ter-me­ter sys­tems at a cost of more than $160 mil­lion.

Cus­tomers have long com­plained about er­ro­neous wa­ter bills, but in 2012 the city au­di­tor found that the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works had over­charged thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses by a to­tal of at least $9 mil­lion.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Bal­ti­more Sun un­cov­ered ad­di­tional prob­lems. Cock­eysville Mid­dle School had been over­billed by $100,000, and a Ran­dall­stown woman had been re­ceiv­ing a neigh­bor’s bills for seven years. The city ac­knowl­edged that some work­ers made up me­ter read­ings.

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 agreed to elim­i­nate min­i­mum us­age fees.

The new monthly bills will show cus­tomers how much they are be­ing charged for use of wa­ter, sewer, in­fra­struc­ture and ac­count man­age­ment. Fees for Ch­e­sa­peake Bay restora­tion and stormwa­ter will also be in­cluded.

About two weeks after cus­tomers re­ceive their first bill, ac­count own­ers will get a let­ter from the city with an ac­ti­va­tion code that will help them log into a se­cure data­base to see how much wa­ter they use by the hour, thereby alert­ing them to un­ex­pected wa­ter use that could be costly.

“Cus­tomers are asked to be pa­tient in the early days of the new billing sys­tem,” the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works said in a state­ment this week. “Dozens of cus­tomer sup­port agents are tak­ing phone calls and see­ing walk-in cus­tomers, and there may be slightly el­e­vated wait times as the agents work through the vol­ume of in­quiries.”

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