Mayor Catherine Pugh acknowledged glitches in Baltimore's new water billing system Friday and outlined steps the city is taking to allow customers to track daily consumption, catch erroneous charges and receive better customer service.
Pugh was joined by officials from the Department of Public Works to talk about the more than $160 million being spent to install wireless meters and create a billing system for the city's 400,000 water customers. Her remarks came after some complained of receiving bills for tens of thousands of dollars more than they actually owe.
"There were glitches in the system," Pugh said. "We're trying something new. It is not perfect. But we'll get it right.
"I am committed to the citizens of Baltimore that we will have an effective water system that is working."
The city switched from quarterly to monthly billing in October for customers in Baltimore. Some residential customers have erroneously been billed as much as $80,000. Others told The Baltimore Sun they had not received a bill under the new monthly system or that payments were not credited to their accounts.
At the same time as the upgrades have been made, the city has continually raised water rates. Officials voted in August to authorize a 33 percent rate increase over three years.
Public Works Director Rudy S. Chow said the large incorrect bills made it past a series of checks that call for workers to examine and validate abnormal charges.
"There were some high bills that got away from them, but we very quickly fixed" them, Chow said.
Chow said he also is adding more customer service representatives.
Officials demonstrated how to use a new online portal available to water customers, who were mailed letters that included an activation code. The codes can be used to log in to a secure database to monitor daily water usage, as well as to print copies of old bills and track consumption and payment history.
By checking accounts online, customers can spot unusual usage caused by a leak in a pipe or fixture instead of discovering the problem when an oversized bill arrives.
Other changes include eliminating estimated billing and charging users the same rate regardless of whether they consume a small or large amount of water. Previously, the rate the city charged for water decreased the more a customer used.
Chow said the 35-year-old billing system was obsolete and depended on workers going from household to household reading meters. That led to mistakes when workers misread the numbers or — in a few cases — made up readings. The workers who submitted fake readings have been fired, he said.
The new mayor said she wants the agency to take more steps to alert the public about changes to the water system. Public works officials will rehang banners alerting customers to the monthly billing and host a series of workshops.
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"Sometimes when we roll out new ways of doing things, we don't always inform the public like we should," Pugh said. "We did this [to create] an effective, efficient and a transparent system where everybody knows exactly what they're using."
Asked if she would consider selling the city's water system to a private company, Pugh said she was committed to seeing the new improvements through. She said she has had conversations with companies that contacted the city about the possibility of buying the system.
"I want to give this the try that it needs, in terms of its ability to do what it says it can do and the fact that we have invested so much already," she said. "I am going to give this a period of time.
"We're still having conversations, but right now I am focused on how I can make sure that what we're doing with our citizens is appropriate and that it is efficient. I am satisfied personally where we are."
Customers with concerns about their bills should contact customer support at 410-396-5398.