Here's the $64,000 question:
Why did a Roland Park woman get a Baltimore City water bill Oct. 12 for $64,224.85?
"It just made us laugh so hard when we opened the envelope," said Caroline Wayner, 46, who lives in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood. After calling customer service and waiting 35 minutes on the phone, she was told the actual bill was $85 and that the $64,000 bill was "a system error," she said.
"It's just embarrassing to have mistakes like these," Wayner said in one of several emails last week.
The Wayners' problem began in June, when the family received a water bill for about $400, "which is much higher than usual," Wayner said.
"My husband went outside and read the meter himself, emailed the water department and asked for a new reading to be taken. He got a reply, the new reading was taken, so we thought all was well," she said, adding, "Then, the adjusted bill never arrived. So I called after a month, and they told me to be patient, that a work order had been put in for an adjusted bill, and that this new bill would arrive shortly. It never arrived, so, before we left on vacation at the end of July, I called one more time and was told to send in a good faith payment."
Wayner continued: "We heard nothing for two and a half months until we got this outrageous delinquent notice. No bill for June/July/August ever arrived. I called right after we got the absurd bill, and they were finally able to tell me what our real bill was. When I asked how a bill for $64,000 could ever be sent out, they told me it was a system error. I'm also stunned that it took four months for them to figure out a corrected amount after the meter was re-read. This is not a system error, but sheer incompetence."
Wayner was able, however, to find a bit of levity in the situation: "The best part of all of this was posting the ridiculous bill on Facebook and seeing what clever comments people made! One friend said, 'You must have really clean kids!' "
Wayner is not alone. A persistent problem of erroneous water billing has convinced the city to overhaul its water-meter management system. The winning bidder will have to replace the system by April 2017, including installing 400,000 meters.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says inaccurate bills are inevitable until the old meter system is replaced.
"Until we get upgraded and state-of-the-art water meters across the city, we're going to continue to see that," she said.
A separate contract will be bid on to replace the billing system.
Baltimore City provides water meter service to about 410,000 customers, half of whom live in Baltimore County.
City officials voted in July to raise water and sewer rates by 42 percent over three years to help pay for infrastructure and other improvements.
City water service is paid for through a self-sufficient utility that is controlled by the mayor and does not go through the general fund budget process, but rather a separate budget process.
Last year, the city's auditor found that the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of customers by a total of at least $9 million. A Baltimore Sun investigation also uncovered problems, including Cockeysville Middle School being overbilled by $100,000 and a Randallstown woman receiving her neighbor's bills for seven years.
"I just hope that our story makes other people who've gotten absurd bills feel better," Wayner said.
Her own case appears to be resolved — she thinks.
"We're hoping to get a normal bill on Dec. 1," she said. "But who knows?"
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun