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As new water-billing system begins in Baltimore, some complain of spiking bills

Some in North Baltimore describe their latest water bills as "astronomical," "ridiculous" and "frustrating."

Baltimore officials have begun to use a new monthly water-billing system that they say will cut down on human error and quickly alert users to costly leaks.

But as the Department of Public Works transitions to the new system this week, residents — including many in North Baltimore — say they're being hit with spiking bills.

The city sent out a bunch of bills in late September to close out its current quarterly billing system, and acknowledged that those bills would likely strike users as atypical.

Steve Carey, 38, of Medfield said he had already received three quarterly water bills this year, then received a fourth for nearly $400. His typical water bill is less than $140.

"It was totally out of the blue," Carey said. "There's something definitely not right."

His comments were echoed by many of his neighbors, who used the adjectives "astronomical," "ridiculous" and "frustrating" to describe their latest water bills on a neighborhood social media website.

One woman said her bill spiked 30 percent. Another said hers reached nearly $500 and she was "in the corner hyperventilating." A third described her latest bill as "robbery."

A spokesman for the Department of Public Works said residents who have concerns about their bills should contact customer support at 410-396-5398. He said it might appear some bills are spiking because the city sent out no bills during the month of August.

"It's important to remember that customers are billed for their usage," spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said. "The meter reads, which show the usage, are independent of the transition to the new billing system. We've been getting automated reads from many of these meters for two years now.

"Again, if customers are concerned about high consumption figures they should get in touch with Customer Support and Services to get an explanation."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she's hearing a high volume of complaints, and has yet to hear an adequate explanation for the spiking bills.

She said she suspects the problems are "geographical" in nature, and wonders whether some of the September bills were estimated.

Raymond said there has been no uptick in estimated bills.

"I'm trying to get answers," Clarke said. "We will get this resolved."

The complaints come as the city is upgrading its nearly four-decade-old billing system with what officials say is "modern, state-of-the-art software and hardware." The city will begin mailing the new, monthly bills for Baltimore customers in the middle of next week.

Public Works Director Rudy S. Chow said the new technology allows for automated, wireless, hourly collection of water consumption data.

"This is a very exciting time for the City of Baltimore," Chow said in a statement. "It is virtually unprecedented for a city, especially one of Baltimore's size, to ... replace its metering and billing systems simultaneously."

The city is overhauling its aging water-billing and water-meter systems at a cost of more than $160 million.

Customers have long complained about erroneous water bills, but the issue gained widespread attention in 2012 when the city auditor found that the Department of Public Works had overcharged thousands of homes and businesses by a total of at least $9 million.

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered additional problems. Cockeysville Middle School had been overbilled by $100,000, and a Randallstown woman had been receiving a neighbor's bills for seven years. The city acknowledged that some workers made up meter readings used to calculate bills.

Baltimore's Board of Estimates voted in August to increase water rates by 9.9 percent a year for the next three years and charge two new fees. The board agreed to eliminate minimum usage fees.

The new monthly bills will show customers how much they are being charged for use of water, sewer, infrastructure and account management. Fees for Chesapeake Bay restoration and stormwater will also be included.

About two weeks after customers receive their first bill, account owners will get a letter from the city with an activation code that will help them log into a secure database to see how much water they use by the hour, thereby alerting them to unexpected water use that could be costly.

"Customers are asked to be patient in the early days of the new billing system," the Department of Public Works said in a statement this week. "Dozens of customer support agents are taking phone calls and seeing walk-in customers, and there may be slightly elevated wait times as the agents work through the volume of inquiries."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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