Baltimore sent Baltimore County a $23 million water bill — and it hasn't been paid

The Baltimore County government is refusing to pay a nearly $23 million bill for water supplied by the city’s Department of Public Works in a dispute both sides say they are working to resolve but has dragged on for years.

A city consultants’ report says the bill — designed to make up the difference between what county residents pay for water and the actual cost of providing it — stems from the county undercharging its residents and businesses.

The report says the department’s new meters provide a more accurate picture of customer use.

But county officials say they’ve had trouble verifying that residents have been billed accurately for water.

Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler said Thursday the county disputes the $22 million figure.

“We’re still working with the city to come up with an accurate number,” Mohler said. “We have ongoing communications with the city. We’re just trying to arrive at the numbers.”

A spokeswoman for Mohler said officials expect to complete their review this year.

The squabble is another wrinkle in the Public Works Department’s multiyear project to implement a new metering system that automatically transmits usage readings and calculates bills. Officials have said the change will eliminate problems with inaccurate billing that previously plagued residents — but its implementation has spawned new issues.

For instance, the consultants found that in the first nine months under the new billing system, 1,006 customers in the city had not been billed at all, and another 4,108 had been billed inconsistently. A water department spokesman said all customers will be expected to pay once officials determine how much they owe.

Baltimore County and the city share a drinking water and sewer system operated by the Baltimore Department of Public Works.

How they cover their share of the costs differs, with county and city customers paying different rates for water. At the end of each year, the city either pays back the county if customers there have overpaid or sends a bill if they paid too little — an amount called a “settlement payment.”

In the financial year that ended in summer 2014, the city issued the county a bill of about $4.8 million to make up for customers’ underpayment. Another for just under $15.5 million followed in 2015, and a bill for $2.4 million was issued in 2016. The figure for 2017 was still being calculated at the time the consultants finished writing their report.

The county hasn’t paid any of those bills, the consultants reported.

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Mohler, said that if the city was underbilling county residents, or misreading water meters, that would affect how the county paid its share of the costs.

In 2016, auditors recommended the city take a $20 million hit in its annual accounts in case the county never paid. But Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works said officials remain “positive about a recovery of old charges pending an outcome of these negotiations.”

“All parties are committed to resolving this issue,” he said.

The consultants wrote that once problems with the new water meters are resolved and higher rates kick in for Baltimore County customers, the end-of-year settlements should be smaller.

The cost of water in both Baltimore city and county has been rising rapidly in recent years, stoking concern that too little is being done to help the poorest customers afford their utility bills.

A 9.4 percent increase went into effect in the city July 1, nudging the average monthly bill above $90. Baltimore County customers will see bills go up an average of 14 percent this year.

Under the old quarterly billing system, city residents regularly complained of being improperly charged too much for water. Officials vowed that the new electronic system would eliminate problems, but they have persisted in some cases. In February, the water department acknowledged that 566 customers had wrongly been sent bills higher than $50,000 because of a software issue.

Meanwhile, the consultants found thousands of customers either not being billed at all or being billed inconsistently. As of late January, 133 customers still weren’t getting bills and 2,275 were receiving them only occasionally, the consultants wrote.

Raymond said “lingering data issues” in the department’s old system, as well as issues related to collecting accurate information from the new system, were to blame.

“We are working daily to make sure we address these matters,” he said.

While customers will be expected to pay any missed bills, Raymond said those eligible can enroll in payment plans.

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