Baltimore County sewer fee billing draws complaints

Unsure of data from a new water meter system, Baltimore County officials decided this year to estimate county residents’ sewer fees — a decision that has led to complaints of inaccurate bills.

The bills estimate sewer charges based on residents’ water consumption from two years ago, rather than meter readings from the past year. The fees — which also include an 8 percent rate increase — are part of annual property tax bills, which were mailed this summer.

Some property owners say using figures from 2015 is flawed, and in some cases ignores efforts people have made to reduce water use. Critics also complain that the county did not explain the change in advance.

“What if somebody went out of their way to conserve water throughout the past year?” said Tim Hersh, an owner of ZBA Property Management, a Timonium-based company that owns and manages properties in the county.

Richard Worch of Florida inherited his father’s Carney-area home in 2015 when his father died. The family learned the house had a leaky toilet, resulting in a sewer fee of more than $4,300.

His family paid the fee in 2016 and fixed the toilet — but because the county estimated his new bill from 2015, officials now say he owes more than $4,600 for the current bill.

Worch said when he called the county for an explanation and a copy of the rule change, a county employee told him this was simply the way things are being done.

“I’m disappointed in the response of county government,” Worch said.

County residents are served by Baltimore City’s water system, but their sewer fees are included in property tax bills handled by county government. The sewer fees are based on a household’s water consumption.

County officials say they were worried that new meters installed by the city would render inaccurate readings.

“As Baltimore City moved to install 150,000 new water meters in Baltimore County, there was concern that the transition period might not yield accurate readings at the beginning,” county officials said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. “There was also concern that some citizens would be billed using old meters that may not have been functioning correctly.”

The new meters are supposed to alleviate errors that have troubled the city water billing system.

City officials say they are confident the new meters are accurate.

“Baltimore City Department of Public Works upgraded the meters to provide a more efficient, reliable, accurate read of actual water consumption by each of our approximately 400,000 customers,” Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement. “We are fully confident in the meters and the data they provide.”

County spokeswoman Lauren Watley said county officials made the decision to use previous readings “to benefit and protect county taxpayers.”

She said as questions arose from citizens, county employees responded individually.

But some residents complain that the method is unfair and that the county has not been transparent about the process.

The county updated its website Aug. 14 to explain the charge — a few weeks after property tax bills were mailed.

The fee in question is listed as the “metro service charge” on Baltimore County property owners’ tax bills. The charge includes a flat fee called a water distribution charge, plus a sewer usage charge that changes depending on a property’s water consumption.

Worch, a former elected sheriff in Florida, said he got “the brush-off” when he tried to get answers about his bill. He has appealed the bill to Public Works Director Steve Walsh.

In a letter to Walsh, Worch detailed his attempts to get information from the county by phone:

“I commented that projecting this forward, if I am now to pay based on a year with a broken toilet pipe, over the next ten years I would be paying an additional $40,000+ in fees to property taxes, versus not having the broken pipe last year,” Worch wrote. “I was told this is the ‘way it is.’ Something is not correct here.”

Delores Creighton bought a home in Windsor Mill this summer and said she was shocked to discover a sewer fee of more than $4,000. She doesn’t know what factors could have led to such a large bill.

“How do they expect me to afford something like that?” asked Creighton.

Zach Winter, another owner of ZBA Property Management, said he started investigating the issue in June when he checked the county website for this year’s sewer usage charge and couldn’t find the right information.

Winter said fees across the company’s Baltimore County properties “all balanced out for the most part” because some properties owe less under the new calculation, while others owe more.

But he said the county’s move is unfair to people who tried to conserve water over the past year. He also questioned why someone whose property has been vacant should be charged a sewer fee based upon water consumption from the previous year.

The county’s 8 percent sewer fee increase this year comes after a 12 percent increase in 2016 and a 15 percent increase in 2015. County leaders say the money is being used for major upgrades to aging infrastructure.

Last month, county taxpayers were told to ignore their property tax bills because of errors. County officials said those mistakes were connected to the metro service charges.

The county has since sent out new bills.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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