By Julie Scharper and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
2:17 PM EDT, March 17, 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.
Others are skeptical.
"It's like a billing tsunami," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has received numerous calls from residents seeking help with water bills.
City auditor Robert L. McCarty — whose audit also showed that thousands of new accounts did not receive bills for as long as three years — said his office plans to look at the situation again in three months.
"At that time, we'll have to evaluate again," he said.
The council voted unanimously this month to ask Rawlings-Blake to prevent homes from going to tax sale over unpaid water bills until the public works department can "demonstrate to the council that a viable and fair system of billing is in place."
City officials contend that the water-billing problem is not quite as big as it has been made out to be.
Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the water and wastewater bureau, says the results of the audit have led many to believe that their bills are incorrect, when the real culprit is an unseen leak, such as a basement toilet running or a damaged underground pipe.
He says the city bends over backward to help people who have experienced leaks in their household water system. When residents show evidence that they have gotten their leaks repaired, such as receipts from plumbers or for plumbing equipment, the department will refund them for high bills accrued when the leak was active, Kocher said.
"We're losing the water and giving the revenue back even when it's not our error," Kocher said.
But getting the refund can be a challenge because the department has been severely understaffed, officials acknowledge.
Currently, just seven people answer calls from water customers concerned about their bills. The workers, sitting in blue cubicles in the municipal building on Holliday Street, busily chatted on headsets on a recent afternoon. Six temporary workers began training last week and nine more are expected to be hired soon, public works officials say.
There's been a shortage of meter readers and inspectors as well, officials note.
Before 2006, 52 people read meters in the city and county. That year, the number of meter readers was slashed to 28. The bureau recently added six more meter readers and is seeking three more, Kocher said.
Meanwhile, the number of inspectors — including those who check meters after billing complaints — had dropped to six last year. The city has now increased the number of inspectors to 28, Kocher said.
The effect of those shortages is evident in the ordeal of Mount Washington residents Tom and Amy Geddes, who worked for months with the city after they received a bill in November for $700, more than three times the usual amount.
The problem only got worse — about $16,000 worse.
When they called the city, they were told that they'd have to wait two months for an inspector. The Geddeses agreed to hire a plumber to check the toilet, a common source of leaks. The city worker they spoke to over the phone said it would be OK to pay just $200, their usual amount.
But when the inspector arrived in January, he concluded that there was still evidence of a leak. So the Geddeses called a plumber once again and spent $3,000 replacing a pipe in the front yard, which was considered the likely culprit.
In January, the Geddeses got another high bill— $660. Amy Geddes went downtown to the water-billing office to seek the discount allowed when a homeowner takes steps to repair a leak. An office worker said the inspector had marked having seen "no evidence of repair" and insisted that the full $660 be paid.
Geddes persisted, providing photos and documentation of the completed work. She was assured everything would be fine, she says.
But just when they thought the matter was resolved, the Geddeses received a bill this month for $16,641. It claimed that the family of four used 2.2 million gallons of water in the previous quarter — the equivalent of about 100 swimming pools' worth of water.
"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."
He took to Twitter and sent a message to Rawlings-Blake, who operates her own account. He also contacted CouncilwomanRochelle "Rikki" Spector, mayoral chief of staffPeter O'Malleyand The Baltimore Sun, which checked into the matter.
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.
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