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Attorneys representing condominium owners at the Ritz Carlton Residences in Baltimore say their clients repeatedly asked the city’s Department of Public Works for water and sewage bills between 2009 and 2017, and want to “pay their fair share” of an estimated $2.3 million in uncollected debt.
Attorneys representing condominium owners at the Ritz Carlton Residences in Baltimore say their clients repeatedly asked the city’s Department of Public Works for water and sewage bills between 2009 and 2017, and want to “pay their fair share” of an estimated $2.3 million in uncollected debt.

Attorneys representing condominium owners at the Ritz Carlton Residences in Baltimore said Thursday that their clients repeatedly asked the city’s Department of Public Works for water and sewage bills between 2009 and 2017, and want to “pay their fair share” of an estimated $2.3 million in uncollected debt.

“They want to work with the city to resolve this, and obviously they want to pay their fair share of the water and sewer bill,” said Lisa Heimlicher, one of the attorneys.

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Another attorney, Rachel Hess, said representatives of the council of unit owners at the luxury complex reached out to the public works department “several times” by phone and in written letters about having received no water bills, even though a meter was installed in 2007. Heimlicher said they received no response.

The attorneys said a preliminary review has identified such communications as early as 2009 and as recently as 2017, and there may have been more.

“We’re still looking into that,” said Hess, who declined to provide copies of the letters.

The attorneys are working with the public works department to review the city’s $2.3 million estimate for how much the condo owners owe for water and sewage, Hess said. The condo owners have not agreed that is what they owe.

“It’s very premature right now to do that,” Hess said. “They’ll be doing an investigative report to evaluate the accuracy of what the charges should be.”

The comments follow Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s announcement last week that the city had failed to charge the complex for water since it was built and the meter was installed. Young said the city was embarking on a sweeping audit of its water billing system.

Lester Davis, the mayor’s spokesman and director of governmental affairs, said the audit will include a review of “the incidents that led up to” the information reaching the mayor in mid-October, and whether things should be changed to streamline communication of important matters.

Davis referred questions about past communications between the Ritz Carlton residents and the public works department to City Solicitor Andre Davis.

Andre Davis said he has not seen any such communications yet, but the law department is “looking into that.”

Public Works Director Rudy Chow, who recently announced his retirement, declined through a spokesman to respond to the condo association’s claims that they had long asked for bills, citing the ongoing investigation.

Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s chief of operations, said the $2.3 million estimate was based on readings from the meter. It has been collecting data all these years, but that information wasn’t reaching the billing system, Goldstein said.

The complex consists of nearly 200 units, many of which enjoy sweeping views of the Inner Harbor and sell for millions of dollars. Dr. Steve Sobelman, president of the council of unit owners, referred questions to Hess.

Hess declined to comment on whether her clients sought to report their lack of water bills to anyone outside the public works department.

According to interviews and documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, it was someone else whose outreach to elected leaders brought attention to the matter.

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Emily Green, a retired reporter who lives in Federal Hill and researches water issues for a California nonprofit, was stunned when a friend recently mentioned residents of the nearby Ritz Carlton condos had never paid for water, despite requesting bills from the public works department. Green said another friend who used to live there confirmed that to her over Labor Day weekend.

Green, who has written about water billing and its disproportionate impact on low-income residents in Baltimore and other post-industrial cities, shared the information in an email to several state legislators the next morning, asking them who at the public works department handles such billing.

“The DPW defends the referring of unpaid water and sewer bills of the city’s poor to tax sales because of the pressing need to pursue infrastructure upgrades," Green wrote Sept. 1 to delegates Luke Clippinger and Brooke Lierman, Democrats who represent her district, and Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington of Baltimore. "Can it possibly be true that the same department never sent bills for the same services to residents of the Ritz Carlton?”

Clippinger responded that night, telling Green that he and Lierman were working on the issue, and had been in touch with Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the area. A minute later, Clippinger forwarded the email exchange to Nicholas Blendy, deputy director of government relations for the mayor.

“Please don’t tell me that the Ritz hasn’t been paying water bills for years," Clippinger wrote to Blendy. "Please.”

Blendy emailed public works officials the next day and repeatedly asked for updates on their investigation of the matter. According to a series of email exchanges that the mayor’s office provided to The Sun after a request for records, Blendy received little response through Oct. 9, when he forwarded the correspondence to Lester Davis and flagged it as an issue for discussion with the mayor’s "senior team.”

Young and Goldstein said they learned of the matter shortly thereafter, and immediately launched the broader review.

Costello said he first heard about the condo association not receiving water bills in “late summer," and brought it to the attention of public works.

“I don’t have any further comment,” he said. “This is something that is clearly going to need to be worked out by legal counsel for the residents and for DPW.”

Lester Davis declined to make Blendy available for an interview.

City Solicitor Andre Davis said he understands the condo residents’ desire to have a fuller accounting of the uncollected debt before paying anything.

“Everybody is acting in good faith, and I don’t fault them one bit for wanting validated records,” he said. “And I think we’ll be able to give them to them.”

Lierman said she was “appalled and concerned” when she received Green’s email, and wants public works officials to explain how such a large lapse was allowed to occur for so long.

“How did they not know?” Lierman said. “What systems are not in place that allow a huge residential development to not pay a water bill for many years, even when it is apparently trying to pay it? That just indicates a huge systemic failure, and we in the city cannot afford failures of that level.”

Clippinger said he blames outgoing public works director Chow. He said he thinks the mayor’s pending audit is crucial in order for the city to move forward.

“Water billing in the city, we know, has been an ongoing crisis. It’s important that we finally get to the bottom of it,” he said. “Doing that audit now is vital for when the next head of DPW gets in there, so they have a clear plan of attack going forward to have any problems identified and solved, so they can go about the work they need to be doing.”

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Chow, 60, has led the agency since 2014. He announced his Feb. 1 retirement just days after Young first learned of the Ritz Carlton situation. He declined through a spokesman to respond to Clippinger’s criticism.

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