Baltimore public works officials on Wednesday detailed several "corrective actions" they've taken to fix the city's water billing system, which the city auditor says overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million.
Rudolph Chow, head of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater, told the city's Board of Estimates that he has added staff and changed policies in response to a highly critical audit that found widespread billing problems. Because of increased staffing and a better accounting of where meters are located, he said, his workers have read more meters so far this year than in any of the five previous years.
Public works officials have been scrambling to fix an aging water-billing system that has overcharged residents and stoked outrage aimed at City Hall. The six actions outlined Wednesday are part of a broader, long-term effort to address billing problems attributed to faulty water meters, an outdated computer system, human error and, in some neighborhoods, meter readings fabricated by two employees who no longer work for the city.
Chow said he believes the initial steps "will lead to great accuracy, which is what are citizens are asking for."
The city also changed the criteria that would trigger water shut-offs and tax liens against delinquent customers. Under the previous policy, the city would pursue a tax lien before unpaid water bills reached a level that triggered shutting off the water. City officials hope that by shutting off the water first, residents will pay their bills and be able to keep their homes.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake praised Chow for implementing "numerous improvements" to a water-billing system that was in disarray. "These problems did not development overnight, and we all know it will take time to correct," Rawlings-Blake said.
"When you came on board, you inherited a water department and a customer service department that had a lot of failures," she told Chow, who took the post last year. "I'm very proud of the work you've done. We need to be accurate with our water bills. We need to make sure the customers have trust in what we're doing."
Chow made his presentation to the Board of Estimates, the city's spending panel. City Auditor Robert L. McCarty noted that the bureau's response was two months' late.
Last month, McCarty said a continuing review showed the Department of Public Works, which oversees the bureau, likely owes at least $5 million more in refunds because of inaccurate bills — in addition to $4.2 million refunded after the auditor's report in February. City officials acknowledge that the amount owed could continue to rise.
The city's water system serves 410,000 customers in the region.
Chow said the following changes have been implemented:
•Increasing the number of meter readers from 27 to 38, and adding 19 meter inspectors and four customer service representatives. The bureau says the average waiting time to speak to a customer service representative is now three minutes.
•Placing meter readers on permanent routes to ensure consistency in readings.
•Changing the "financial criteria" that trigger shut-off orders to avoid "erroneously placing properties in tax sales." Officials will now shut off water for accounts that have reached $250 in overdue payments, instead of $500. And officials will no longer begin the process of seizing homes over as little as $250, instead raising that threshold to $350.
•Locating thousands of "hard to find" meters, reducing the number of meters workers can't locate from about 4,000 to 1,425. Meter readers have reported that they couldn't find some meters, which may have been cemented over or buried in gardens.
•Replacing about 14,000 meters inside buildings with curbside meters that can transmit readings with a wireless system.
•Resuming the process of holding "informal conferences" with residents upset over exorbitant bills.
Despite the new measures, residents affected by exorbitant water bills say they haven't seen as much assistance from the city as they would like. In Homeland, where more than 50 residents reported higher-than-normal water bills — including some that tripled or quadrupled — the residents have waited for months for resolution of their complaints, according to Lynn Petersons, the operations manager of the Homeland Association.
She said some residents have given up fighting the high bills, after realizing they would have to take days off work to attend downtown hearings on a weekday.
"They've been blown off," Petersons said. "Tragically, it's the way government works."
Linda Stewart, a Curtis Bay activist who has studied problems in the city's billing system for years, says she believes officials are taking some corrective action but that the problems are too deep-seated to be fixed with a few hirings and policy changes. She said she continues to receive calls from residents complaining about suspiciously high bills.
"They may have made improvements, but they haven't fixed the problems," Stewart said.
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