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City again seeks to raise water, sewer rates

Technology IndustryWater SupplyCarl StokesMary Pat ClarkeUniversity of Baltimore

For the fourth consecutive year, Baltimore officials are proposing a 9 percent increase to water and sewer rates — and the charges will continue to grow indefinitely to cover the costs of major projects, they say.

The proposed rate increases come as the Department of Public Works has been grappling with high-profile billing problems that have been attributed to faulty water meters, outdated computer programs and, in some neighborhoods, fictitious meter readings fabricated by employees.

Public works officials say the latest cost increase, which will raise the average family of four's annual bill from $1,170 to $1,276, is needed to pay for projects to replace or repair pipes, protect drinking water reservoirs and upgrade water meters.

The city has increased water and sewer rates by 9 percent or more all but two years since 2000 to pay for such repairs. A decade ago, the average family paid $517 annually for city water.

Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman, attributed the cost increases, in part, to a 2002 federal consent decree to seal the city's leaky sewer system.

"There's going to be $1 billion or more in projects related to the consent decree," said Kocher. "In every part of the city, there is work to be done."

But some City Council members questioned why officials would raise the rates while residents are beset by inaccurate bills.

"I still have hundreds of residents waiting for informal conferences about erratic water bills, and I think we have to get these resolved before we increase the rates," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose North Baltimore residents have complained for months about the billing problems.

Councilman Carl Stokes expressed concerns that indefinite cost increases would be burdensome for residents.

"An indefinite 9 percent increase is just very unfair to the citizens," he said. "It's a disincentive for job growth and moving into the city."

Kocher said the higher rates were necessary to fund several massive construction projects, including replacing sewer lines that run through Bolton Hill and the University of Baltimore area and covering drinking water reserves in Towson and at Lake Montebello. The money will also enable the city to begin replacing antiquated water meters, he said.

The city's spending board voted Wednesday to set a June 27 hearing on the higher rates. The Board of Estimates will take a final vote on the rates, and the new charges will likely go into effect July 1.

Public works officials also recommended rate increases for city water used in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties. These counties obtain city water for residents who live near the city line, Kocher said.

Many Baltimore County residents also rely on the city's water supply. It is unclear whether they will see increased water and sewer rates as well.

Some of the projects to improve the system are mandated by a 2002 consent decree that followed years of violations of the federal Clean Water Act, Kocher said. Others were required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of the city's water and sewer lines date back more than a century, Kocher said. The city had 961 water main breaks last year and about 400 so far this year, he said.

The city is currently spending $1.9 million to replace water lines along Falls Road in North Baltimore and $5.4 million on other infrastructure repairs, public works officials said.

The department plans to spend more than $16.7 million replacing water meters throughout the city. The meter upgrades represent the first phase of a project to replace all meters for city and Baltimore County residents with devices that submit usage data directly to billing software — reducing the possibility of human error.

Workers are responsible for at least some of the widespread billing errors that have come to light in recent months. Public works figures show that nearly one in 10 customers has received inaccurate bills due to mass estimations, faulty calculations and other problems.

The department issued $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 customers in the city and county following a highly critical audit.

City auditor Robert L. McCarty said public works officials are soon due to present a three-month follow-up report on efforts to address the problems highlighted by the audit.

Most recently, public works officials have acknowledged that two employees who no longer work for the department fabricated readings in Ednor Gardens and Guilford — and possibly other neighborhoods. Some residents are now feeling the effects of the fake readings as they are issued hefty bills to make up for earlier bills that were too low.

Public works officials say they have hired additional call center employees, meter readers and inspectors to help address billing problems. They recently extended contracts to attorneys who will help wade through a backlog of the thorniest billing issues at what the city calls "informal conferences" with residents.

Overhauling the meters and billing software will cost as much as $100 million, officials say. The water and sewer line projects will cost as much as $1 billion more, Kocher said.

Kocher was unable Wednesday to produce a list of all of the department's current and planned projects and their estimated costs, but said that such a list would be compiled before the June 27 hearing.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Increases

YearWater increaseWastewater increase

19988 percent8 percent

200100

20001915

20021610

200399

200499

200599

200699

200799

200844

200999

201099

201199

201299(proposed)

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