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Rawlings-Blake: Expect 'hiccups' in Baltimore's transition to new water billing system

Officials from Baltimore's public works and finance departments are expected to attend a City Council committee hearing Wednesday to address water billing issues.

The 5 p.m. hearing, which will air live on the publicly owned CharmTV channel, will focus on affordability issues. The city switched to monthly billing this month for Baltimore customers, as officials continue a more than $160 million overhaul of the aging billing and meter systems.

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that water customers may experience "hiccups" as the improvements continue.

"The new water billing system is the first attempt to modernize our water billing in generations," she said Wednesday at her weekly news conference. "We took a long, hard look at what the problems were and systematically worked to try to find solutions to those problems.

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"You don't get to better unless you try. You don't get to a more modern system unless you modernize the system, and that's what we're doing."

Councilman Carl Stokes, who will lead Wednesday's meeting, said he is concerned with the city's attempts to cut off "vital water supplies to struggling families" caught up in a troubled water billing system. He wants to see officials focus more on collecting payments from delinquent commercial accounts and less on residential ones.

"I have been dismayed with the number of phone calls my office receives about water shut offs for local residents or outrageous water bills many times not at the fault of the customer," Stokes said in a statement.

The committee will hear testimony on the burden of water bills on low-income households, ideas for a new rate structure and a proposal for a program to assist residents with unaffordable bills to prevent water service cut-offs, according to Stokes.

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Water rates will increase by 9.9 percent a year for the next three years after the city's Board of Estimates voted in August to adjust the charges. The board also agreed to charge two new 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.

Officials say they are creating a modern system with "state-of-the-art software and hardware." Monthly bills also will ensure users will be quickly alerted to expensive leaks that may drive up their costs.

Still, residents continue to complain of spiking bills. Some called the bills "astronomical, " "ridiculous" and "frustrating."

Steve Carey, 38, of Medfield said recently 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."

Residents who have concerns about their bills should contact customer support at 410-396-5398, according to Department of Public Works officials.

"It's important to remember that customers are billed for their usage, " spokesman Jeffrey Raymond has 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."

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