Clarke wants hearings restored for water bill disputes

Baltimore water customers could again appeal their bills during informal hearings before a third party under legislation a member of City Council plans to file Monday.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a North Baltimore Democrat, said the hearings would give homeowners and renters the right of due process when they believe their bills are wrong and a chance to personally petition for help in hardship cases.

The Department of Public Works long offered customers the chance to challenge their bills before a third-party contractor, who could then recommend bill adjustments. The agency eliminated the informal hearings in October in favor of a written process — accessible online and through customer service representatives — that officials said was less confusing and more consistent.

Clarke said it’s not an acceptable replacement.

“You would have a neutral hearing officer that doesn’t work for the agency, which is very important,” Clarke said. “This gives people a chance to be face-to-face with a person.”

Under Clarke’s bill, such a hearing would have to be held before the department could cut off service or take certain actions to collect on a delinquent account. But it is unclear whether the City Council can prevent the agency from sending property liens to tax sale for unpaid water bills while customers are awaiting a hearing.

The hearings would not be available to businesses.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has not taken a position on the bill. Consumer advocates said Clarke’s proposal would address a deficiency in the system, but larger problems with the water system remain.

The water department eliminated the hearings in conjunction with the rollout of a new billing system that included new meters, more customer service representatives and other upgrades. City customers began receiving monthly bills in October and now have access to a website that allows them to monitor usage and spot spikes that could indicate a leak.

Under Clarke’s bill, the conferences would be conducted by contractual hearing officers, as was the case in the past. The bill would give the director of public works the final word on whether to accept the hearing recommendations, also as in the past. Clarke said records from the hearings and the recommendations would help the director make a judgment.

At the end of the conference, customers would be told of the hearing officer’s recommendation and within 30 days would get written notice of the public works director’s decision.

Tenants would have to get permission from their landlords to participate in a hearing. The conferences would be available to customers only once a year.

Pugh’s office said she has not decided whether to support the bill, but the Public Works Department stands behind its current practices.

“The mayor certainly wants residents to feel comfortable that they can get correct and complete information regarding their water bills,” Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. “She does not take public positions on council legislation until the hearing process and final action is taken by the council.”

Jeffrey Raymond, a public works spokesman, said the administrative review process in place “provides a clear, legally sufficient set of guidelines for when and how a customer may seek a review, and how much of an adjustment a customer can expect based on defined criteria.

“The process is the same for all customers, in order to build in fairness,” Raymond said, adding that decisions can be reviewed internally all the way to the director. “Moreover, our administrative review process was drafted in consultation with other water utilities, and is in line with those practices.”

Raymond said the department’s new technology allows customers to monitor usage hour by hour and “it is important to note that ‘spikes’ in bills are caused by increases in consumption.”

Advocates have challenged the department’s decision to eliminate the hearings, which they say was done without public notice, stripping customers of a fair process to challenge their bills. The consequences of billing disputes are serious: Homeowners can lose their houses over unpaid water bills that send the property debt to tax sale.

Mary Grant, an activist with the environmental group Food and Water Watch, said introducing legislation to reinstate the hearings is a recognition that there is an “an urgent need” for fair and transparent billing appeals. She said the organization is hoping for a comprehensive solution from the council.

“We can all agree that something needs to be done so people aren’t seeing their water being shut off or their homes sent to tax sale while they’re disputing their bill,” Grant said.

Marceline White, director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, called Clarke’s bill a good “first step.” But, she said, it is insufficient to fully address problems associated with the city’s water bills, especially for low-income residents. Rates have increased year after year to help Baltimore pay to fix crumbling water and sewer infrastructure and make improvements to address environmental standards.

“What we really need is systemwide reform of the water system,” White said.

Another immediate measure officials should take, White said, is to automatically enroll customers in the water department’s financial aid program if they sign up for other government aid, such as a state utility discount program.

The City Council and some members of the Maryland General Assembly have put pressure on the water department to change its practices. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young wants the city to change the way water and sewer rates are charged to take into consideration a customer’s income and age. He is considering legislation to adjust the interest and fees homeowners are charged to redeem their properties from investors who buy the liens at tax sale.

Young supports Clarke’s bills and expects to introduce additional measures in coming weeks, his spokesman Lester Davis said.

Members of the state legislature, including Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, want to block the city from including unpaid water bill debt at the annual tax sale in May. She introduced such a bill during the legislative session that concluded in April, but it failed to pass. Another bill to create a task force to examine the tax sale process statewide did pass and was signed by the governor.

To request an adjustment to a water bill now, customers can call, email or visit the department. The agency researches the account to determine what steps officials deem appropriate, including testing the meters and reviewing historic consumption rates.

Bills can be adjusted in the case of underground leaks or malfunctioning toilets, for example, if the customers provide proof that a licensed plumber has repaired the problem. Officials say they also accommodate some customers with hardship requests, such as an older homeowner who might have left water running and not heard it.

Adjustments for underground leaks are granted only once every two years. Reprieves for interior leaks are made only once every three years.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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