Baltimore is hiring two attorneys to work through a backlog of 2,000 cases in which customers of the city's water system are contesting their bills.
The city's spending board agreed Wednesday to pay a total of $56,000 to two attorneys to attempt to resolve the disputes. Public works officials say they have not held meetings on contested water bills since February — around the time the public works department revealed that nearly one in 10 customers had been overbilled over the past three years.
The department is issuing $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 customers.
Officials say the meetings with lawyers, described as informal hearings, provide a recourse for residents who believe their bills are inaccurate and have been unable to persuade customer service workers to lower the charges.
Public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said the department will work to address the backlog of complaints.
"For May, we now have scheduled 13 conference sessions as opposed to the usual eight, and we hope to increase these in the near future with additional hearing officers to be brought on board," Kocher said in an email. "We are also scheduling our customers in a way that will shorten their wait time for their conferences."
Kocher said the informal hearings were last held Feb. 29, a few days after the release of a scathing audit of the water billing system. He attributed the pause to "a review of the new contract which took longer than expected."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has been pushing for the city to improve its water billing system, said many residents whose homes were subject to tax sales for unpaid water bills were removed from the list because they could not schedule a hearing.
"I was told there's no way for the department to hold hearings at this time," Clarke said. "I think we're going through a time when any informal hearing would be productive for the" residents.
The attorneys, Alan S. Carmel and Barrett W. Freedlander, will be paid $250 for every three hours of hearings they oversee, according to the contract approved by the city's Board of Estimates Wednesday. The five-member board, which includes MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Youngand Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, voted unanimously in favor of the contract.
The attorneys will earn about $83 an hour, about 30 percent more than the attorneys who adjudicate protests over code violations for the Environmental Control Board.
Both Carmel and Freedlander had previously been under contract with the department to hold such hearings, Kocher said. Neither Carmel, an attorney in private practice, nor Freedlander, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Maryland Insurance Administration, responded to requests for comment.
The attorneys will "take testimony from the complainants and any witnesses presented by the complainant, review the [public works] files and records on each complaint, and will also take testimony from [public works] personnel" before writing an opinion on the bill, according to spending board agenda.
Clarke, who said she has helped residents protest bills, said the hearings generally take less than 15 minutes — once the customers are called.
"You can sit there a whole long time waiting for your turn, and we have," she said.
Both public works employees and residents present their cases to the hearing administrator, who issues a written opinion, city officials said.
Linda Stewart, an activist who has called attention to the city's water billing errors for years, said she went through a brief hearing when she challenged a bill several years ago. She questioned why the city needed to hire attorneys to supervise the process.
"All you do is go in and sit down and give them information for five or 10 minutes," said Stewart, a Curtis Bay resident. "He asked a couple questions, and that was it. You don't need to be a lawyer to do that."
Kocher said complicated cases require the expertise of an attorney and the impartiality of a third party.
"Having someone with a legal background helps us know we're on solid ground," he said. "We don't want it to be a closed process. We want it to be open and transparent. By having an outside person in there, it gives balance to it."
The department has increased the number of people reading meters, checking on complaints and working in the billing call center, officials say. Public works officials plan to overhaul the meters and billing software in the next few years in an attempt to further reduce errors.