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City makes $1.4 million mistake in water billing

Over the past three years, the managers of Mount Washington's Ivymount Apartments have struggled to get an accurate city water bill. But nothing prepared them for the shock of a $1.4 million bill.

Past problems paled in comparison. Once a city contractor fished a rock out of the complex's water meter and said it had caused overbillings. On another occasion, the city issued a $27,000 refund after correcting an estimated bill.

The Ivymount's most egregious bill appeared late last month, just days after the mayor assured water customers that widespread billing problems had been fixed. The city's online billing system said the complex owed $1.4 million, more than 100 times its normal rate.

"I can't afford to pay a million dollars," said Sandra Mulderrig, vice president of the company that owns the Ivymount. "This property will be gone."

Mulderrig called the city numerous times about the mammoth bill, and sent certified letters to the Department of Public Works and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She said one public works employee eventually told her that the bill for $1,438,362 was an estimate — it should have been $438,362.

Thursday, hours after The Baltimore Sun inquired about the Ivymount's account, a public works employee called the management office to say that the bill had been reduced to $13,500, a typical charge for the billing period.

Even as city officials say they are addressing problems cited in a highly critical audit last month, some City Council members say they've seen no decrease in complaints about erroneous water bills.

"We're seeing no improvement," said Lester Davis, spokesman for council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "Every day, we're being inundated with calls to this office. If anything, people are more upset than ever. These are real people with real problems."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she believes the Public Works Department is taking the issue seriously, but customers are still seeing many mistakes.

"There are errors in meter reading. There are errors in the meters themselves," she says. "They need to train people for the call center and they need to train new meter readers."

And while she believes the department is working to fix its errors, Clarke said she is dissatisfied with the speed of improvements — particularly the fact that officials say it will take several years to install a new meter-reading system that could reduce human error.

"What I see is the correct steps are being taken to solve these problems, but some of the steps are only now being taken," Clarke said. "I'm not happy with the time frame for replacing the meters. I think we need to accelerate that schedule. Getting the new meters is absolutely crucial to the whole process."

Linda Stewart, an activist who has tracked water bill errors for years, said she is monitoring dozens of accounts that are still owed refunds.

"I don't see any improvement in the system," Stewart said. "They're trying to blame it all on the estimated bills, but that's really wrong. It's more than just estimated bills."

In the wake of the city auditor's report last month, the Public Works Department issued $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 customers. City officials have said they are hiring many more staffers to field phone calls, check meters and research bills. And officials say they will install new meters and new billing software for the water system's 410,000 customers over the next three to five years.

Public Works spokeswoman Celeste Amato said the Ivymount's billing saga shows that "our system is working as it should." The apartment complex had not received a bill in the mail for several months, she said, because the unusually high $1.4 million charge had triggered an investigation.

Amato pointed out the online billing system for water customers describes the statements there as "preliminary" and "subject to review."

Mulderrig, however, said that when she called the city after not getting a bill, the worker told her to check the website.

"I want to pay my bills," Mulderrig said. "I don't like to owe money to anyone. We have a very good reputation."

Peppie Knapp, Mulderrig's co-worker, discovered the $1.4 million bill on Feb. 28 and called the Department of Public Works. An employee told her "there was no way of knowing if the bill was an error," Knapp recalled.

The employee assured the Ivymount's managers that a supervisor would return their call, but that never happened, the two women said. Instead, they called back a week later and spoke to the same employee, who said that bill had been an "estimate" and the invoice now read exactly $1 million less.

The Ivymount's staff then sent certified letters to Public Works and the mayor's office, but did not receive a response. Eventually, Mulderrig decided that they should read the meter themselves.

"I finally threw up my hands and said, 'When you want something done right, you need to do it yourself,'" she said.

She and Knapp calculated how much water the complex had used and how much it owed the city. They determined they needed to pay about $15,000, and sent the city a check for that amount earlier this month. "I even included the Bay Restoration Fee," Mulderrig said. "I haven't cheated them out of anything."

The employee who called yesterday to report that the true bill was $13,500 said the complex would get a credit for the difference.

Last night, Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said the bill had been adjusted Wednesday. He said the department planned to stop posting preliminary bills on the customer website because it caused too much confusion.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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