Baltimore officials say they have collected $1 million in unpaid water bills from nearly 1,500 customers since beginning a stepped-up effort to clear thousands of past-due bills.

Dale Thompson, a deputy director of the Department of Public Works, told senior citizens Tuesday at the Zeta Center in Northwest Baltimore that the city has programs to help water customers get caught up on late bills.

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The city began shutting off service this week to customers at least six months and $250 behind on their bills, she said. About 25,000 delinquent customers owe a combined $40 million in long-overdue bills.

Service has been shut off to about 300 customers; the city expects to disconnect about 150 a day.

The city has about 400,000 water customers, about half of them in Baltimore County. Turn-off notices are being sent to customers there as well.

Thompson said customers can request a review of their accounts, during which the city will continue to provide service. Those who are facing bankruptcy or can document a qualifying medical situation can be granted a reprieve.

Some customers with past-due balances can set up payment plans. The city also offers water discounts of 39 percent to low-income seniors and a weatherization program that can help cut utility use, among other assistance.

Thompson said the Public Works Department and other agencies have community liaisons who distribute information across the city and help qualified residents sign up for programs.

"Our sole goal is to make sure people are educated about the many services that are out there that could assist them," she said.

Various groups have protested the city's effort to collect the past-due bills.

Mitch Jones of the consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, said shutting off service denies Baltimore households access to the "basic human right to water" and also poses a public health risk.

Jones said the city, which has a history of water billing errors, should target businesses with past-due accounts before households. Business accounts make up about 370 of the past-due customers and $15 million of the outstanding debt, officials say.

"The city must act to ensure universal access to safe and affordable water service," Jones said.

For help from the city, residents can call 410-396-5398.

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