Baltimore's spending panel approved a deal Wednesday with a Connecticut company to offer insurance to property owners whose pipes could break during a system-wide overhaul of water meters.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake encouraged residents to buy HomeServe USA Corp.'s insurance, which — at less than $9 a month — she called "very affordable."

"If the problem is on the resident's property, it's their responsibility. How many people would be able to pay for that if they got hit with a $4,000 bill?" the mayor said.

HomeServe will offer insurance to property owners for $3.99 per month for water lines and $5.49 per month for sewer lines, or $8.49 for both. As a marketing promotion, water customers who sign up within the first year will be charged only $1 per month for their water lines that year. As part of the contract, the company will also provide $150,000 a year to Baltimore to help pay for repairs for low-income or senior residents unable to afford the insurance.

Thousands of Baltimore County residents also are served by the city water system. County officials will have the option of offering insurance to their residents, but will need to enter into a separate agreement with the vendor, said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

City officials declined to provide a legal basis for why they believe homeowners could be stuck with bills if pipes break during a contractor's work.

Last year, Baltimore officials awarded an $83.5 million contract to overhaul the city's huge water-meter system — and warned residents that they could be liable for damage the work might cause on their properties unless they purchase insurance.

The city selected Itron Inc. of Washington state to install meters for a new wireless meter system that will serve 400,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County, rejecting a competing bid from local firm Dynis LLC that was $101 million more.

Rawlings-Blake said the upgrade is part of an effort to end "outrageous" water bill mistakes that have infuriated customers. The replacement is expected to be completed in the city by 2016 and the county by 2017.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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