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City official: Lazy workers faked water meter readings

Two city water meter readers turned in phony numbers in at least two neighborhoods in recent months, the Department of Public Works acknowledged Tuesday, leading to more inaccurate billing by an agency that has been troubled by aging infrastructure and high error rates.

As the Bureau of Water and Wastewater tries to correct the mistakes, residents who were undercharged are seeing a spike in their water charges — and officials say they must pay.

The latest twist in the city's water billing problems, which have affected at least one in 10 local homeowners, did not go over well in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Homeland, where residents were already angry about the unusually high charges.

"I should not have to pay for their mistake," said Avraham Amith, an 83-year-old Homeland man whose most recent quarterly bill came to more than $600 — four and a half times his average over the last decade, he said.

"They're a mess," Amith said. "There's no question about that."

Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the water bureau, blamed the fake readings on the laziness of two employees who are no longer working for the city.

Instead of actually reading the meters — which would have required that they walk through neighborhoods and lift meter covers — they simply made the numbers up, Kocher said.

"This was totally irresponsible," Kocher said. "These were people who were not doing their jobs. They hurt themselves and caused problems for the citizens."

Kocher said officials first noticed fake readings in Ednor Gardens-Lakeside. The Sun has received reports of unusually large bills from several residents in Morrell Park, and from individuals in other neighborhoods.

Kocher said the department is investigating to see if other employees submitted fake readings, and if other neighborhoods were affected. He said the workers were removed in January, but the ramifications of their actions are still being felt.  

Homeland residents say the city never explained why they suddenly received sharply higher bills. When they called customer service to complain, they say, they were passed around, made to wait on hold and ultimately told that they must have a leaking pipe or running toilet.

"No one seems to know anything," neighborhood resident Katie Pinheiro said. "They transfer you from one department to another department."

Kocher acknowledged the falsified readings after a Baltimore Sun reporter asked about the unusually high bills delivered to customers in Homeland in the past two weeks. At least 25 residents there say their water charges doubled, tripled or quadrupled.

Kocher said one of the employees was fired and the other resigned. He declined to name either worker but said they had worked for the city for eight months.

Pinheiro said that "about half of Homeland" received unusually high bills for the most recent quarter. Lynn Petersons, the operations manager of the Homeland Association, said her email inbox has been flooded with messages from angry homeowners.

"When they look at their bills, they're stunned," Petersons said. "Then when they start calling the city, they're very frustrated. They're not getting any satisfaction."

Amith said his bill has fluctuated over time, but he had never received one as high as $600. When he contacted the city to complain about the bill, workers told him nothing of the phony readings.

"I was told the standard answer: 'You must have a leak,'" he said. Amith said he then spent $115 on a plumber who assured him there was no such leak.

"If they suspected something was wrong, why did they tell me to hire a plumber?" he asked.

Pinheiro, who bought her house last year, said she should not be charged extra because the previous homeowner might have been underbilled.

"I'm not going to pay for a penny of what I haven't used," she said. "It's ridiculous that I should have to pay for someone else's usage."

The Department of Public Works has been under fire not only from customers but also from the City Council after a highly critical city auditor's report documented widespread problems with water billing. The department collects more than $130 million a year.

After the auditor's report, the department reviewed about 70,000 of its 410,000 customer accounts — and issued $4.2 million in refunds.

Records show that nearly one in 10 households on city water has been overcharged in recent years — and the actual figure could be far higher, since the city has not routinely checked for mistakes unless a customer complained.

City officials have argued that the water-billing problem has been overstated, but they have also pledged to institute reforms, which Kocher called "interim steps" to overhauling the entire antiquated system. Officials say they've hired more staff and replaced problem meters; in the longer term, they plan to convert to electronic meters.

Kocher said that in addition to forcing out bad employees, the city has cut down on waiting time for callers and pledged to send workers out to people's homes to check complaints within five days, instead of the months such checks took before. He said there should no longer be widespread errors in the billing system.

"Except for scattered locations, where human error could play a part, I don't think the patterns are going to be there," Kocher said.

Kocher said customer service representatives would continue to look at individual Homeland bills on a case-by-case basis. He said the city will set up payment plans for homeowners who are unable to pay the increased bill all at once.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said his office continues to be inundated with complaints from residents about water bills.

"Most of my staff is working on water bills," Young said. He said he was considering asking the Department of Public Works to place employees in his office to help wade through the complaints.

Young said that seniors had been calling, and many reported being asked to wait months for a hearing to resolve their bills.

Linda Stewart, a local activist who has studied the city's water-billing problems for years, said the department has acknowledged fictionalized billing in the past — and fired four employees in 2007.

"Where are the supervisors if they're doing it again?" Stewart asked. "Why should a new owner get stuck with the previous owner's water bill? It's very unfair."

Stewart said she knows city workers have lied about readings on her property in the past, because her meter is covered with concrete — yet she receives bills that list an actual reading, instead of an estimated reading.

Still, she says, the recent laziness of a couple employees doesn't explain irregularities in the billing process that have persisted for years.

In the past week, Stewart said, she's tracked spikes among clusters of residents in the Waverly neighborhood. The Sun has received individual complaints of high bills in neighborhoods including Remington and Park Heights.

Richard Monk says he thought City Hall had pledged to fix its water-billing problems. That was until he got a $5,323 bill at his Remington house earlier this month.

"They were claiming that they cleaned up their act and that it can't happen anymore," the retired Coppin State University professor said. "The problem not only still exists. It's exacerbated."

Stewart said she hasn't seen compelling evidence that the problem is getting worse. Likewise, she hasn't seen evidence it's getting better.

"I'm still seeing the same things happening," she said. "I can't see any significant change."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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