The city also placed meter readers on permanent routes to ensure consistency in reading, began locating thousands of "hard to find" meters to reduce reliance on estimated bills, and started replacing about 14,000 meters inside buildings with curbside meters that can transmit readings with a wireless system. Meter readers now estimate about 225 readings per day, down from 1,100 two years ago, officials said.
"We didn't get into this situation overnight, and I don't think any reasonable person would think that we could fix it overnight," Rawlings-Blake said. "But that doesn't stop the frustration from me and push from me to make sure we're getting it right."
"I still see the same thing happening," she said. "People are still paying water bills for empty lots. They're still not getting their credits. I still have people writing to me about their bills. I feel helpless. What can I tell them but 'keep pestering the city?'"
Water, water everywhere
Exorbitant bills were especially infuriating in a year when decades-old water lines cracked underground with alarming regularity, sending water streaming down streets while disrupting traffic and sometimes gas and electric services.
In July, a main broke in the heart of downtown, under Light Street near Lombard, disrupting traffic in the area for weeks as the city repaired it and replaced nearby lines and valves. In November, a 60-inch main under Charles and 20th streets burst, creating a rushing river down the thoroughfare.
In December, two blocks of East Monument Street finally were reopened, five months after a 120-year-old storm drain broke and caused the street to collapse. The damage extended beyond the pavement, with businesses in the area losing customers and laying off staff.
There were other breaks as well, smaller perhaps but still creating havoc, prompting Rawlings-Blake to accelerate the pace at which aging mains are replaced. The city had been replacing about five miles of pipes a year and hopes to increase that to 40 miles a year. To help pay for the work, the city again increased water rates by 9 percent.
In February, the mayor testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, arguing that cities need federal dollars to update aging water systems and relieve ratepayers of some of the burden.
In an interview, Rawlings-Blake said the crumbling infrastructure ultimately adds to the cost of providing water to the roughly 1.8 million customers in the region.
"Even if we get the water bills right, we are, through an aging infrastructure … wasting our resources," she said. "Because even if the bills are 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, at the end of the day, all of the customers are paying for the fact that we have an aging infrastructure."
Property tax fiasco
Already paying the highest property tax rate in the state, many city residents were more than a little outraged by a Sun investigation that found fraud and errors in how real estate is assessed and taxed.
Million-dollar-plus condos had property tax bills of barely a thousand dollars. Owners of boarded-up houses were getting homestead tax credits that are supposed to go only to properties they actually live in. And some owners managed to double-dip, getting homestead credits on their residences plus other properties.
Since then, Rawlings-Blake tripled the staff and funding for a program to root out such disparities, and it's already showing results, according to William Voorhees, the Finance Department's director of revenue and tax analysis.
"The tax system is becoming fairer," Voorhees said. "We are catching people."
Voorhees said the billing integrity program has found cases of mistakenly authorized property tax credits totaling about $4 million for fiscal 2012. It forwarded that information to the state, which will try to recover the money from owners who should not have received homestead and other credits. That figure may grow, he said, if some of those homeowners erroneously received the credits for previous years as well.
The Finance Department is also working on a way to track major property improvements, to prevent cases in which owners were still being assessed on their homes' original values, Voorhees said.
"We still have a ways to go," said Gonter, the Patterson Park resident who has been looking at improperly granted homestead credits for several years. But while he still finds mistakes in the system, Gonter said he is pleased at advances such as a new state law that adds a fine of 25 percent for a fraudulently received credit.
A year of challenges for city residents
Mayor says city is making progress on resolving problems
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