County residents suffer from city's water billing problems, too – times three
Mistakes by city water bureau are compounded in sewer bill calculations, often go unnoticed
Bill and Cindy Molick's mortgage payment had increased to over $300 since their water and sewage bills dramatically increased in February 2011. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / April 5, 2012)
More than 200,000 county households get their water from Baltimore City, where an error-prone billing system overcharged its customers in both jurisdictions by at least $4.2 million in the past few years.
But in Baltimore County, the errors are multiplied because of the method sewer charges are calculated for these customers: The county's budget and finance office multiplies the city-issued water bills by three.
And because sewer charges for county residents are wrapped into their annual or semiannual property tax bills — which are often paid out of escrow accounts held by mortgage companies — many homeowners don't even notice the exorbitant charges.
"There is no doubt that if someone has an erroneous bill, given the computation that takes place … someone's charge could indeed be inflated," said Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. County residents may have overpaid by as much as $2.7 million on sewer bills, according to figures released by city public works officials.
Mohler said county officials would promptly correct sewer bill errors in response to customer complaints, but he said they have no way to flag the 17,000 county accounts to which the city is issuing water bill refunds.
"The two billing systems don't talk to one another. They're incompatible," said Mohler. "Someone would have to call once they got [their water bills] straightened out with the city. When folks call, they get pretty prompt service."
Bill and Cindy Molick of Rosedale learned their annual sewer bill was about $1,000 too high only after their mortgage company upped their payments by $300 a month. When Cindy Molick called the lender, an employee alerted her to the high sewer fee.
"Why am I stuck dealing with this when none of it was my fault in the first place?" asked Cindy Molick, 54, a retired city police officer.
Unless their homes are served by wells and septic systems, Baltimore County residents rely on the city's public water and sewage treatment systems. The city issues the bills for water usage, and customers send their payments to the city.
But billing for the sewage treatment system is handled by Baltimore County's budget and finance office. The county triples a household's water bill to determine sewer charges, a calculation based on the assumption that customers who run more water are also sending more water into the sewage treatment system. The sewer charges are then added to residents' property tax bills.
The county turns over to the city the money it collects for sewer bills, about $52 million last year. The city uses the revenue to help pay for maintenance of the wastewater treatment system.
While problems with the city's water billing system surfaced several months ago, Mohler says the county is "in the early stages" of trying to figure out how many residents may have paid too much in sewer charges and whether the overbilling problem continues.
County officials are "trying to work with our city counterparts to analyze the city data to get to the bottom of the magnitude of the problem," Mohler said.
A spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, which runs the city's water and sewer systems, said the city did alert county officials that 17,000 county customers had been overcharged. City officials also have said they have taken steps to correct problems in the water-billing system.
City auditors first informed city public works officials in November that as many as 65,000 city and county residents may have received inaccurate bills over the past three years.
By the time the audit was made public in late February, public works officials said they had completed their own review and determined that 38,000 customers had been overbilled and were due $4.2 million in refunds. About 17,000 of the 225,000 county water customers — about one in 13 — had been overcharged, they said.
As the Molicks can attest, the city's correction of a water bill does not automatically trigger a reduction in a sewer bill.
The couple's frustrations began when they received a water bill in early 2011 that was nearly $500 more than they had been paying.