Lillie M. Oliver and her husband, Lawrence, have lived in their East Baltimore rowhouse since the 1960s. The couple, who have been married 65 years, said they were terrified recently of losing the house they worked so hard to purchase because of an outrageous $41,000 water bill, which the retirees could not afford to pay.
Prompted by my office, workers with the Department of Public Works investigated the matter and reduced the Olivers' bill to $103.78, blaming the astronomical difference on a computer glitch.
Mrs. Oliver is not alone. During the past several months, my staff has fielded more than 100 calls from residents who have received unusually high water bills.
The unexpected bills have a devastating impact on residents, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, because they know that their unpaid water bills could lead to their houses being seized by the city and sold to the highest bidder during the annual tax sale.
Take the example of Jeanette Mellerson. She called my office in early February after receiving a water bill for $732, an increase of more than 1,360 percent over her average quarterly bill. The West Baltimore senior citizen, who lives on a fixed income, said that she was shocked after opening the erroneous water bill. DPW workers later discovered an error with her bill and reduced her charges by $522.45.
These troubling stories are in line with a recent audit that found widespread problems with the integrity of the billing system used by DPW to charge residents for water and sewer usage. In May 2010, 851 properties were included in the city's tax sale based solely on estimated readings for one or more years, the audit found. Some of these bills were for just hundreds of dollars, and a DPW review suggested that in at least one instance a property would not have been eligible for the tax sale if actual readings, instead of estimates, had been used. This alarming trend prompted me to introduce a resolution calling for a moratorium on listing properties in the city's annual tax sale based solely on unpaid water or sewer charges.
A hearing on this resolution is scheduled for Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall. I am encouraging residents affected by this issue to attend.
Recently, DPW officials have suggested that a moratorium on seizing people's houses, due in part to faulty billing, is akin to providing amnesty to property owners who fail to pay their bills. They say maintaining contact with the department and establishing some form of payment would be sufficient to keep a property off the auction block, despite the fact that the agency does not currently have a written, formal policy to this effect. The department, they insist, is working diligently to update its aging water meters and system for billing, a process that by DPW's own admission is several years from completion.
I firmly believe that residents should pay their water bills, and my proposed moratorium does not suggest otherwise. But I've heard from countless residents, like Lillie Oliver and Jeanette Mellerson, who are extremely frustrated with the current system. They have lost faith that the problem can be corrected. That's why, until the billing system has been fixed, I feel strongly that no house should be sold through an auction solely because of an unpaid water bill.
In addition to my proposed moratorium, I believe the DPW should take the following steps to bring Baltimore's water billing system up to date:
• Increase the accuracy of actual meter readings, and fully comply with a bill the council passed last summer calling for the elimination of estimated meter readings for residential buildings
•Accelerate the thorough upgrading of the current water utility billing system.
•Implement a meter replacement program for meters that are inaccurate, broken, or inaccessible.
•Adopt updated rules and regulations to govern the operations of the Bureau of Water/ Wastewater, including customer service guidelines, bill adjustment procedures, and meter service policies.
The passage of a moratorium on listing properties in the city's annual tax sale based solely on unpaid water or sewer charges, coupled with the above recommendations, will help restore integrity to Baltimore's system for charging residents for water usage.