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Dozens more Baltimore businesses reported missing water bills after Ritz Carlton spurred audit, officials say

Dozens of additional businesses in Baltimore have contacted city officials to report issues with their water bills — or lack thereof — since revelations last fall that wealthy waterfront condominium owners at the Ritz Carlton Residences hadn’t paid for their water service in over a decade, Baltimore officials said.

“When the story about the Ritz came out, we had other people reach out to us who had concerns about their water bills — predominantly people who had accounts but hadn’t received bills in a timely fashion,” said Sheryl Goldstein, chief of operations for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

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She estimated that included between 20 and 40 businesses.

“Most of them are [saying], ‘I used to get a bill and I haven’t gotten a bill in a while, and I don’t know why, and I want to get this taken care of,’ ” Goldstein said.

The city also has identified new developments, built in the last 18 months or so, that “had not received a water bill since they had turned on their water,” Goldstein said.

She said she did not have an exact number of such cases.

“We are still doing analysis about that,” she said. “I’ve gotten one or two phone calls and been able to look into that issue, and we’ve been able to rectify those issues.”

The complaints and other findings are being tracked as part of a sweeping citywide audit of water billing that Young announced in October, after the city realized that it hadn’t collected water payments from the Ritz Carlton — to the alleged tune of $2.3 million — since the nearly 200-unit condominium complex first had its water meter installed in 2007.

“I’m a little pissed off and upset,” said Young, the longtime City Council president who became mayor this spring, at the time.

Goldstein said the Ritz meter had recorded readings, but the city’s Department of Public Works had never gathered the readings or input them into the city’s water billing system, so no bills were generated or sent to the condo association. Lawyers for the condo association said their clients had requested bills repeatedly from the city.

How much the association will pay on the alleged $2.3 million debt is the subject of negotiations between the city and the association. City officials have refused to discuss the matter, or to release any correspondence between the association and the city over the years, as requested by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request.

Rachel Hess, an attorney for the condo association, said she and her clients “are continuing to work with DPW to have this matter resolved.” She also has declined to release past correspondence.

Apart from the Ritz, Goldstein said, three months in, the city’s audit is “at the halfway mark.” She hopes to have results by May, she said.

In addition to dealing with all the self-reported issues from customers since the Ritz issues were revealed, the city has made multiple staffing changes to ensure proper billing occurs moving forward, Goldstein said. The staffing changes slowed the audit but were necessary, she said.

In October, Young announced longtime Public Works Director Rudy Chow would retire Feb. 1.

Officials are in the process of going through city data to ensure every address using water has an active billing account and is paying for services, Goldstein said. They originally identified a very long list of addresses without active accounts, but quickly reduced it by removing vacant properties and those paying for water under multi-unit meters linked to other addresses, Goldstein said.

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She would not say how many addresses remain on the list for review, but said it is still “pretty sizable.”

Goldstein said at the end of the audit process, the city will have a full accounting of the problem, both in terms of the number of accounts that weren’t being charged and an estimate for the amount of revenue the city might have missed out on. Until then, she could not offer any figures, she said.

“We’ll be putting out information in a transparent way about what we found so that people know,” she said. “We hope that what we’re able to find are some systemic issues that led to whatever the issues were with the accounts, and that we have a pathway forward to address them.”

One issue already has been identified, she said.

Currently, the city issues use and occupancy permits for buildings without requiring any proof from developers that they properly installed a water meter and notified public works of that installation, as is required. Moving forward, Goldstein said, that likely will change.

After this article being posted online Thursday, City Council President Brandon Scott and Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said they would hold a hearing on the water billing issues in the near future.

“Every day Baltimore residents struggle to pay their bills, and it’s disheartening to hear that businesses and large corporations aren’t paying their fair share," Burnett said.

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