"My wife just about fell over when she got it," Tom Geddes says. "I would be really upset about it, but it's just so ridiculous."
Unlike the family's previous encounter, the city quickly responded, Geddes said. The next day, a city inspector was out at the house, checking the meter. Within a week, the Geddeses were told they needed to pay $400 — not more than $16,000.
The city still contends that a leaking pipe in the front yard was responsible for that $16,000 bill. Tom Geddes counters that his family likely would have noticed if they had had a leak of that magnitude — they noticed no change in water pressure or water anywhere around their home or property — and he's frustrated that a problem may have continued to escalate while the family waited on hold and for inspectors.
"We have no idea if there ever was a leak or other problem," Geddes says. "What we know is that we took every possible action to fix any potential issue as quickly as we could, and then received this extraordinary bill."
Dobropolski, a patient representative for Johns Hopkins Hospital, said her water bill woes began in 2005 when she received a bill for $125, about five times her normal total. Her next bill was for $470.
When Dobropolski called the city, she was told she likely had a leak. She hired a plumber, who couldn't find one. Then one day, she encountered the meter reader at work and discovered the source of the problem — he was ascribing her neighbor's water meter to her home.
"One day, the meter reader was out and he lifted up the meter — to my neighbor's house," she recalled. "I said, 'That's my neighbor's meter.' He said it was not unusual for meters to crisscross under driveways."
Another employee told her that her home could go to tax sale if she did not pay her neighbor's bill. Still another told her she could resolve the problem by taking off work to go downtown for a weekday meeting at the Department of Public Works — and the next available appointment was five months away.
Two years into her struggle, Dobropolski says, a water inspector came to her home and declared that the meter had been switched. For a few billing cycles after that, Dobropolski received much lower bills that seemed accurate. Then her bills soared upward again — and she noticed that her neighbors were receiving bills at her lower rate.
Eventually, Dobropolski says, she grew weary of struggling with the city and stopped calling about the bills.
After The Sun inquired, Celeste Amato, a public works spokeswoman, said the system appears to have broken down in Dobropolski's case. The inspector's findings should have been passed along to subsequent meter readers, she said. The department has stopped the practice of rotating the readers around different routes, she said.
Rawlings-Blake recently praised public works officials for "working very hard on this long-standing issue."
But activist Linda Stewart, who has studied the city's water bills for years and runs a website where she is known as "WaterBillWoman," says she doesn't believe city officials have taken the issue of faulty bills seriously. She says officials cited low staffing and high estimations as reasons for the problem at a City Council hearing she attended back in 2007.
"That has been their excuse for a while," Stewart said. "They said they were going to find people and hire some more. I don't believe that. This has been an ongoing issue. If they knew about it back then, why didn't they fix it back then? Why do they say it's going to take years to fix?"
If you get a big bill ...
•Make sure you don't have a faulty toilet or leak. Turn off water to your house, then check the meter. If it shows continued use, you have a leak and need a plumber.
•Contact City Hall. Call the number on your bill, email firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 311.
•Explain your problem. Ask for an inspector to come to your home.
•Pay the amount you normally would on a quarterly water bill. This prevents your property from being subject to tax sale.
•Be patient and persistent. The process can take weeks or even months, but those who are owed refunds usually get them.