Water bills

Tom and Amy Geddes, who live in Mount Washington, received an outrageous water bill for $17,000, claiming they used 2.2 million gallons of water in their home last quarter. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / March 6, 2012)

Kathy Dobropolski pleaded with Baltimore public works officials for seven years to stop billing her for a neighbor's water use.

Dobropolski, 60, lives alone in a Randallstown home without a dishwasher or clothes washer; her neighbors are a bustling family of four. Yet beginning in 2005, Dobropolski's water bills soared — from $25 to a startling $470 — while her neighbor's bills plummeted.

She hired a plumber, who assured her she did not have a leak. She called the city again and again, once waiting on hold for 43 minutes. Dobropolski pointed out that some statements listed her neighbor's home as the "service address," though the bills were sent to her. City workers didn't seem to want to hear it.

"I probably paid my lifetime's worth of water bills," Dobropolski said of the years' worth of erroneous bills.

Last week, after inquiries from The Baltimore Sun, public works employees said they had finally taken steps to correct the long-standing mistake, writing house numbers on the meters near Dobropolski's home to be sure each household receives the proper bill.

She has yet to receive a credit for overpayments that likely total in the thousands of dollars.

Nearly one in 10 households depending on the city's water system was overcharged in recent years, Department of Public Works records show — and that figure could be far higher, since the city has not routinely checked for mistakes unless a customer complained.

The department has been under fire not just from customers but from the City Council after a highly critical city auditor's report documented widespread problems in its water billing system, which collects more than $130 million a year. After the auditor's report, the department did review about 70,000 of its 410,000 customer accounts — and issued $4.2 million in refunds as a result.

But like Dobropolski, many customers who have suspected incorrect bills have had to muddle through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to resolve them.

In the aftermath of the city auditor's report, The Sun interviewed two dozen frustrated city water customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County about their experiences trying to get to the bottom of bills that sometimes jumped tenfold — in one case, to more than $16,000 — seemingly overnight. These themes emerge:

•Customers were often told that they would have to wait weeks or even months before an inspector would be available to visit their home to investigate the complaint.

•Some customers were told they would need to hire a plumber to check for possible leaks before an oddly high bill could be challenged.

•Customers were told that challenging a bill would involve a meeting downtown with Department of Public Works officials, sometimes weeks or months in the future.

•If customers do not spot billing irregularities, there is no guarantee that public works officials will catch them in an antiquated billing system.

For instance, the Baltimore County school system was charged a whopping $100,000 for water use at Cockeysville Middle School for one billing cycle last year and paid it, even though the amount was 50 times the school's normal bill. After The Sun asked about the bill, city public works officials acknowledged it was a mistake caused by "human error" and refunded the $100,000.

City officials have offered changing — and sometimes conflicting — explanations, but others familiar with the issues cite three main reasons for the billing problems. They say a severely understaffed agency has been forced to estimate too many water bills, leading to errors. They say the meters themselves are hard to read and sometimes inaccurate and need to be replaced. And they say a billing system run by 30-year-old computer software can create mistakes.

In response to complaints, the public works department in recent weeks has more than quadrupled the staff of meter inspectors and says it plans to more than triple the staff who answer phones.

The department is also soliciting bids for new water meters and plans to purchase a new computer program to generate bills, although officials say implementation of these remedies will take from three to five years.

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand public works officials have said that the influx of new staff in the water bureau and a sharp reduction in estimations have all but eliminated billing problems.