Amid billing change, some Baltimore homeowners hit with water bills of $35,000, $81,000

Mayor Catherine Pugh wants to "take a real look" at Baltimore's new water billing system.

As Baltimore switches to monthly water billing, some residents say they have received bills for tens of thousands of dollars more than they actually owe.

One homeowner in Baltimore's Medfield neighborhood got hit with a $35,000 water bill. Another in Northwest Baltimore received a bill for more than double that amount. A third, in South Baltimore, was even higher: Nearly $81,000.

"Obviously, we were startled by such an absurd amount," homeowner Michael Matten said.

Joanna Handley of Medfield said she thought about moving out of the city after receiving the $35,000 bill this month.

"It was terrifying," Handley said. "You've seen things on the news where they take people's homes over water bills. I almost burst into tears."

City officials say they've corrected Handley's and Matten's bills, and are working on other complaints.

City public works officials, who began moving some 200,000 city water customers from quarterly to monthly billing in October, acknowledge that there have been some issues. They have also switched to new wireless water meters that are supposed to improve billing accuracy, after years of complaints.

Previously, workers checked each meter individually, and sometimes made errors when recording readings.

A public works spokesman said the problems have been relatively few, considering the large number of accounts involved.

"While we switched over nearly 200,000 accounts, after putting all the new meters [in], a handful of accounts needed additional work," spokesman Jeffrey Raymond wrote in an email. "We have taken steps to make sure the system is, in fact, catching these rare mistakes."

Exorbitant invoices aren't the only problems water customers described in emails and phone calls to The Baltimore Sun.

Some said they've yet to receive a bill under the new monthly system. Others say they have paid their bills but were not credited for the payments. Still others say they've had to wait lengthy periods of time for their complaints to be addressed.

Alan Regenberg says he's had several problems with his new water meter. The city workers who tore up his sidewalk to install a new meter never fixed it. Then the meter leaked, and he got hit with a nearly $600 bill.

"It was a very unpleasant surprise," said the Evesham Park man, a director of the bioethics institute at Johns Hopkins. "I was shocked and upset by that. I hope this gets fixed, but I'm not at all confident."

Regenberg said the broken sidewalk "adds insult to injury."

"They said they would fix it but they haven't," he said.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said last week she wants to take a hard look at the transition to the new billing system. She said residents have told her about receiving high bills, including one for $2,000.

"I remember three or four years ago getting a $3,000 water bill and I was the only one using the water," said Pugh, who lives in Ashburton. "I know we said we fixed it. But I do think we need to take a real look at the water bill problem. … I said directly to the Department of Public Works that I think this issue deserves a closer look.

"We don't want people's water turned off, and we do want a more efficient system."

Pugh added Wednesday that she's asked for a "complete briefing" from city water officials about the new water system.

"I'm getting letters and calls every single day from my constituents," the mayor said. "If I'm getting them, they should be getting them. If they're getting them and I'm getting them, then that means we have a problem."

Beyond the problems with the transition to a new billing system and meters, city officials and advocates say they are concerned that Baltimore's rising water rates will hurt the poor.

Baltimore's Board of Estimates voted in August to authorize a 33 percent increase in water rates over three years. The board also approved charging two new fees.

Over the past 10 years, the city's water rates have gone up by more than 120 percent.

City officials say the rate hikes are needed to pay for repairs to the water system's crumbling infrastructure.

Joan Jacobson, who recently wrote a report for the Abell Foundation on water affordability in Baltimore, concluded that the rate increase is forcing low-income residents to "make difficult choices between keeping water on and other basic needs, including housing, food, energy utilities, and health care."

Officials offer payment plans and discounts to low-income residents. But they still shut off the water to more than 8,000 customers in 2015 and another 1,300 in 2016.

Jacobson said Baltimore needs to do more for its poorest residents.

"The city treats its water utility like a private business instead of treating water like a human right," Jacobson said. "Obviously, whatever they're doing isn't enough."

City Councilman Bill Henry said he is considering legislation that could curb water costs. He recently introduced a resolution calling for low-income residents to be charged less.

"The Council recognizes that increases in water and sewer rates were necessary to pay for critical improvements to the city drinking water and wastewater infrastructure," Henry wrote in the resolution. "The council further recognizes that universal access to safe and affordable water and sewer service is necessary for public health, community well being and basic human dignity.

"The city must take steps to ensure that the burden of these increases does not fall too hard on low-income households, senior citizens and tenants. Without further action, more and more households will struggle to pay their water bills."

Customers have long complained about erroneous water bills, but the problem gained widespread attention in 2012, when the city auditor found the Department of Public Works had overcharged thousands of homes and businesses by a total of at least $9 million.

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered additional problems. Cockeysville Middle School had been overbilled by $100,000, and a Randallstown woman had been receiving and paying a neighbor's bills for seven years.

The city acknowledged that some workers made up the meter readings used to calculate bills.

The new monthly bills will show customers how much they are being charged for use of water, sewer, infrastructure and account management. Fees for the restoration of Chesapeake Bay and stormwater will also be included.

Account owners are supposed to have received letters from the city with an activation code that will help them log into a secure database to see how much water they use by the hour. The idea is to alert customers to unexpected water use that could be costly.

Public works officials have asked customers to be patient while they complete the switch to the new billing system.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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An earlier version of this article misstated the year the city shut off water to more than 8,000 customers.

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