Anybody who has ever tried to figure out a Baltimore water bill likely had a simple reaction to news last week that the city's Department of Public Works was going to improve billing procedures and upgrade its water meters: It's about time.
The City Council is scheduled to take up a measure tonight sponsored by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke that would end the practice of estimating bills, which has led to sticker shock for many water customers who have faced inexplicably huge charges. It dovetails with a plan to gradually replace water meters that have to be read manually with meters that can be read electronically. The council should vote yes and start to bring the area's water delivery system into the 21st century.
Any homeowner in Baltimore or Baltimore County who has peered down at his or her water meter — a maneuver made difficult by the odd five-sided nut securing the lid of the meter's underground home — is both revolted and amazed. The sunken vault that houses the meter often serves as a lair for insects, a reservoir of rainwater, a resting spot for grime.
Yet the meter, with its hinged metal lid, clock-like face and sturdy construction, is an impressive mechanism. It might look good for its age, and some have seen the other side of 30, but being old is a problem. Even when they still work — accurately measuring the flow of water that moves through them — they require tending. Someone has to loosen that lid nut, scare off those bugs, sometimes pump out ground water, then read the settings on the dial.
Baltimore's Department of Public Works, which provides water to approximately 411,000 accounts in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, has about three dozen of those workers who manually read the meters. Hampered by bad weather (the blizzards of 2010) and inaccessible locations — about 17,000 meters have either been paved over or are inside homes — workers fell behind in their readings, which are supposed to be taken once every three months. So the department began estimating bills, sometimes with wildly inaccurate results.
Ms. Clarke told The Sun's Liz F. Kay of a Waverly resident who received an $11,000 bill for her townhouse. The corrected bill was $176. The onslaught of complaints about estimated bills overwhelmed the department's customer service office and prompted Ms. Clarke to call for changes.
Meters that convert readings from mechanical dials into digital data are available. Using wireless radio transmitters, these systems remotely read customer meters and then transfer the data into the billing system. BGE employs an automated system to record information from meters measuring natural gas and electricity usage. Howard County has been reading its water meters remotely for 12 years.
The plan for Baltimore city and county is to first install electronic meters for the 11,000 commercial customers who account for a healthy portion of water bill revenue. Then, over a period of years, the old residential meters would be replaced with newer equipment. In some cases, an entirely new meter might be installed; in others, a relatively new meter could be equipped with a mechanism to transmit the data. In the interim, the meter readers, freed of monitoring commercial accounts, could make additional residential rounds.
It won't be cheap. The estimated cost of replacing the commercial meters is $10 million, and the price tag for the entire commercial and residential overhaul is estimated at $100 million. The idea is to spread the bill over a five-to-10-year period, paid for with user fees. This will be another financial burden on a system already beset with the heavy costs of replacing its century-old water and sewer lines. Fees for water usage are expected to continue to go up 9 percent to 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future
Water bills will be higher, but at least with the new meters and new procedures, they have a better chance of being accurate. Improved meters can also deliver detailed information about water usage to homeowners. That is a step toward encouraging conservation, something the current system, with its many bugs, doesn't do.