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Baltimore City Council approves monthly water bills

Reporter Luke Broadwater on a possible water bill rate increase for Baltimore residents. The city's finance and public work director are recommending the increase. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Water customers in Baltimore will be billed monthly, instead of quarterly, under legislation approved Monday by the City Council.

The city will begin sending monthly bills to customers in October, a change officials say will help residents and businesses budget better and spot spikes in usage sooner. Stormwater and bay restoration fees will be prorated.

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The council gave the legislation final approval without discussion.

Councilman Robert W. Curran said the change will help customers keep a closer watch on their bills. If a leak or an accounting error makes a bill unusually high, he said, residents could identify and address the problem before it grows over three months.

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"You'll be able to ascertain that on a monthly basis and solve problems more expeditiously," Curran said.

Monthly billing is to begin in mid-October, with statements sent to residents in a staggered fashion over the course of a month.

The city serves about 400,000 water customers. About half are in Baltimore County.

Water customers in the county will also get monthly bills, but not until next July. County customers will continue to pay quarterly until then.

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The change is part of a multiyear effort to overhaul the city's water-billing system. The effort also includes the installation of new water meters that use wireless transmitters to send usage data. Customers will be able to track their water usage using computers and mobile devices.

"Monthly billing makes it easier for customers to stay on top of their bills and pay in more manageable installments," Rudolph S. Chow, director of the Department of Public Works, wrote in a letter to council members last month.

The billing change comes as the city looks to increase rates.

Baltimore residents would pay about 33 percent more for water and be charged two new fees under a three-year plan being considered by the city's Board of Estimates. The board is scheduled to hear public testimony at 9 a.m. Aug. 31.

Officials say the increases are necessary to update the error-prone billing system and repair the city's crumbling infrastructure.

The water rate would increase an average of 9.9 percent a year. The sewer rate would increase 9 percent annually through 2019.

Customers also would be billed new "infrastructure" and "account management" charges. The infrastructure fee would be changed depending on the size of the meter. The account management fee would be less than $3 a month.

By the third year of the plan, the public works department says, water bills for a typical family likely would increase about $170 annually.

The department wants to increase discounts for certain seniors and low-income residents.

The spending panel will decide whether to increase to 43 percent the discount received by customers 65 and older with household incomes of less than $30,000. The public works department is recommending assistance for certain low-income residents increase to $197.

The rate proposals include increases for the city's water customers in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties.

Baltimore County officials announced in March that water and sewer rates there would increase 21 percent by the start of fiscal year 2018. The county's rate is set independently of the city's.

The city plans to increase the charge for bulk sales to Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties by an amount similar to the proposed increases in Baltimore. Any changes in the rates residents in those counties pay would be up to the local officials.

Longtime Baltimore resident Mac Kennedy said he wants the City Council to scrutinize every part of the water billing system, including the differences between the rates charged in the city and elsewhere.

To start, he said he is skeptical about the reason behind the switch to more frequent bills.

"They're doing it to disguise the increase," said Kennedy, a school administrator from the city's Evergreen neighborhood in North Baltimore. "People will be lulled by the small bills."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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