Linda Stewart

Linda Stewart, an activist who tracks the city's water billing, leans on one of two non-working water fountains in Violetville Park. Despite the fact that neither fountain works nor the concession stand, Stewart says the water bill for three months at the park was $9,000. (Kim Hairston / The Baltimore Sun / February 23, 2012)

For years, Linda Stewart has spotted erroneous city water bills and posted them online, where she is known as WaterBillWoman. She has lodged complaints with City Hall about the widespread problems. She has attended hearings. She has demanded investigations. She has pestered and pestered — only to be met, she says, with indifference.

When no one would listen to her, she began to doubt herself.

"My friends thought I was crazy," said Stewart, 49, of Curtis Bay. "Sometimes I wondered if I was crazy. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'"

No one's calling her crazy now.

This week, the city released an audit that showed that 92 percent of 70,000 accounts flagged for possible problems were likely overbilled — and most of the homes examined in the audit have received no credits for the excessive charges. Baltimore's Department of Public Works plans to issue more than $4.2 million in water bill refunds. For Stewart, the revelations served as a vindication.

"I'm glad something is finally being done," she said.

Then she thought for a moment and added: "But they have no idea how to fix the problem."

The day after the audit was released, Stewart and her husband, Terry, were out at Violetville Park around lunchtime to inspect her latest finding. The park was empty. Its only visible signs of possible water use were two aging drinking fountains near some ball fields. Neither worked. Dirt and grass covered the unread meter in the ground.

The bill? $9,757.06 — paid in full on Dec. 27 by the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks. That's money, Stewart says, that could be used to help city recreation centers.

"It's stealing, as far as I'm concerned," she said of the overbillings.

Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said his agency is well aware of Stewart's work. As for the parks department bill, he said it was paid, so the public works agency wasn't aware there was a problem. A spokeswoman for the parks department did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"Ms. Stewart has made this a cause of hers," Kocher said. "Any citizen who points out something wrong — so we can make it right — is doing something important."

But Kocher said there's often a reasonable explanation for bills that appear excessively high, such as an undetected leak or a faulty meter.

"The vast majority of bills are accurate — or they're pretty close to being accurate," Kocher said. "If an anomaly occurs, it's the most unusual circumstances. She's made this an important part of her life's work. That's great. If she has them, keep them coming to us. For most of the things she brings up, there's a logical explanation. Every now and then, she brings something to us that we say, 'Yes, you're right, we should have caught that.'"

'WaterBillWoman' is born

In 2006, Stewart was running a business, the Gaslight Tavern, and managing two rental properties. Water bills weren't exactly foremost in her mind.

Then the water bill for one of her rental properties jumped from $40 to $800, while her business received a bill showing it had used no water, which she knew was impossible.

"I started looking into it, and I saw that everybody's getting incorrect water bills, and the city is just letting them pay," she said. "I haven't stopped because I see people losing their homes over incorrect water bills."

So, Stewart began compiling data, downloading to her home computer thousands of water bills, which are public information posted to a city-maintained website. The more she learned, the more her outrage grew. In 2008, she put up her first website. She called herself "WaterBillWoman."

Meanwhile, Gaslight Tavern, which had been in Stewart's family for 30 years, started to falter.