Attorneys for low-income residents say Baltimore's public works department has stripped city water customers of a fair process to contest their bills.
They worry the change will cause city homeowners to lose their house at tax sale over contested water bills that could be inflated by a leak, faulty meter reading or unexplained spike in usage.
It's the latest flap for the agency, long plagued by erroneous billing.
The department says the new appeals process is among sweeping changes that give customers access to more information than ever and create thorough grievance procedures that are now applied with consistency.
Evelyn Anderson says the new procedures have her caught in a frustrating cycle.
The 70-year-old woman opened her mailbox this month to find a tax sale notice for the Ravenwood Avenue rowhouse she has owned since 1975. She is afraid an unpaid $1,300 water bill will cause her to lose her home.
She said a plumber has told her there are no leaks in the house. But after months of back and forth with public works, she said the situation remains unresolved.
"I am not supposed to get stressed, because I have a bad heart but I am really frustrated," Anderson said.
Charlotte Clarke, a staff attorney at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, said without the chance to argue her case before a hearing officer — as aggrieved customers could do before October — Anderson's only option for appeal is filling out a complaint form.
"She is trying to take all of the steps," Clarke said. "Nothing is really getting resolved. ... It's a cat and mouse game. We should be working together on these issues so she doesn't lose her home."
Clarke said properties with unresolved bills will go to tax sale in May, after which time homeowners can get stuck paying thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, interest and court costs to keep their houses.
The city sent more than 1,800 owner-occupied properties to tax sale last year over unpaid water bills and other lien issues. More than 315 homes went to tax sale over water bills. Legislation before the Maryland General Assembly would block that practice.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young did not take a position on the bill. But he said the city needs find other ways to address unpaid water bills.
"We are trying to keep people in their homes," Young said. "I would rather them turn the water off than kick people out of your house."
Public Works Director Rudolph S. Chow said he stands behind the new appeals process.
In place of informal hearings, customers now must ask for an adjustment to their account by filling out a request form. The new system, department officials say, is less confusing and more consistent.
The informal hearings were previously necessary so customers could make a case for what their bill should be, Chow said. Now, an assortment of advancements at the agency replaces the conferences, he said.
The department has more customer service representatives and sends bills monthly instead of quarterly, allowing problems to be spotted sooner. Old water meters, which did not always operate properly, are being replaced as part of $160 million in upgrades.
Customers also can access an online portal that shows hour-by-hour usage and can receive alerts when there is a spike in water flow.
Chow said a majority of high bills now are due to leaks inside the house, such as dripping faucets and malfunctioning toilets.
He said it's not in the city's best interests to write off excessive water bills caused by leaks in customers' homes.
"Customers have more information available to them more often, so they are better able to realize leaks or correct unexpected usage well in advance of running up a large water bill," Chow said in a statement.
"Continuing to write off excessive water bills due to leaks is not in the best of interest of the 1.8 million people we serve. Conservation of precious resources such as water through responsible maintenance of interior plumbing is the right thing to do. What we are administering is a sound business practice."
The agency says it will adjust the amount it records a customer as consuming if there is an underground leak, for example, as long as a customer provides proof that a licensed plumber made a repair. The department acknowledges that other issues can lead to high bills, and officials say they will make other adjustments in other instances, such as accommodating an elderly person who may have left water running and not heard it for an extended period of time.
Reprieve for underground leaks will only be granted once every two years. Bill adjustments for interior water leaks will only be granted once every three years. And customers may request a water meter test for $95, which is refundable if the meter is found to be faulty.
Customers can call, email or visit the department in person to discuss their bills. Changes to the appeal process were based on a study of what works best in other cities, such as New York, Washington and Columbus, Ohio.
Public Works spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said the agency is committed to working with customers to resolve billing problems. The agency says it will research the account, perform inspections when deemed necessary, test the meter and look at historic consumption and daily usage.
"If it is our fault, we will not penalize a customer to have it corrected," Raymond said.
Mayor Catherine Pugh acknowledged that the new system has had hiccups. For instance, some customers received bogus bills as high as $80,000 when new monthly billing started.
But Pugh is "confident that the process is certainly improving," a spokesman said.
"With any roll-out of a new process, there will be a number of difficulties and the mayor has heard some of the complaints about the new billing system," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "But she believes the new technology has allowed DPW to get a handle on billing irregularities."
Others said the department did a poor job of notifying residents that the appeal process changed.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she found out informal hearings had been eliminated when she tried to set one up for a constituent. Instead, she was referred to the complaint form, which can be obtained online, at the department's offices or requested over the phone. She is not related to Charlotte Clarke, the St. Ambrose attorney.
"I have been going to informal hearings with constituents for years," the councilwoman said. "The informal conferences were a chance for people to sit with an impartial judge. They were able to have some of the excessive fees waved down. All of a sudden that process disappeared."
Clarke said she wants the department to restore the hearings to "get back some kind of due process."
Homeowners facing tax sale for other matters have more rights, advocates said.
Margaret Henn, foreclosure prevention project manager for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, said citations issued for alleged housing code violations or animal control issues, for example, can be appealed to the Environmental Control Board for a hearing and, eventually, Circuit Court.
"It's unfair that someone who is facing a water bill problem does not have the ability to go in person and explain their situation" during a hearing, Henn said.
Christina Ochoa, a staff attorney with St. Ambrose, said the situation is especially grave because tax sale notices were sent this month.
Also worrisome, she said, is that the department does not provide enough specific information about how it conducts the administrative reviews, including who makes the decision and what factors are considered, "which makes us lack confidence in its efficacy," Ochoa said.
Ochoa said many jurisdictions do not provide a hearing process to contest a water bill, but Baltimore needs one given the history of systemic billing errors in recent years.
Anderson, the East Baltimore woman with a $1,300 water bill, has until May to pay her bill or otherwise resolve her issue.
Raymond, the public works spokesman, said her high bill was caused by a leak, which the agency confirmed based on her hourly consumption data.
If the leak is fixed "then the consumption will be controlled and we can work with the customer on an adjustment" to her bill, Raymond said.
Anderson insists there is no leak. Her attorney at St. Ambrose said if the department would give her a hearing, they could discuss the problem and resolve it.
Councilman Brandon M. Scott said so far in February, like most typical months, water billing problems are the most frequent issue residents call about.
"The No. 1 constituent issue I have dealt with this month is water bills," Scott said. "That is definitely typical. It is all water bills all the time."