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City to spend $8.4 million on new water-billing system

City officials agreed Wednesday to award an $8.4 million contract to a Belgian company to overhaul Baltimore's water-billing system, which has been criticized as outdated and error-prone.

Itineris, whose North American offices are in Marietta, Ga., was the sole bidder to upgrade billing for approximately 410,000 water customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. The Itineris contract, approved by the Board of Estimates, includes $6.2 million for installation and $2.2 million for 10 years of maintenance and support.

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the action represents "another significant step" in improving the city's water system. The contract will pay for new software and technology to replace the city's 35-year-old billing system.

"We're moving forward with the type of system that Baltimore City residents deserve," she said. "Too many families cannot afford the sticker shock that comes with an unreliable or inaccurate water bill. I understand the frustration."

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Customers have long complained about erroneous water bills, but the issue gained widespread attention in 2012 when the city auditor found the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of homes and businesses by at least $9 million. An investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered additional problems, including a $100,000 overbilling of Cockeysville Middle School and a Randallstown woman who'd been receiving her neighbor's bills for seven years. The city also acknowledged that some workers made up meter readings used to calculate bills.

The Itineris deal is the second major contract awarded as part of an effort to end what Rawlings-Blake called "outrageous" water bill mistakes that have infuriated residents and forced the city to issue millions in refunds. Last year, city officials awarded an $83.5 million contract to Itron Inc. of Washington state to install new wireless meters.

The water meter installations are expected to be completed in April 2016 in the city and in April 2017 in Baltimore County.

So far, 5,000 customers in the Midtown and Pimlico neighborhoods in Baltimore and 5,000 customers in the county's Bowleys Quarters neighborhood have gotten new meters that automatically transmit readings on water use.

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Rudolph S. Chow, public works director, said the new billing system will eliminate a minimum water charge issued to customers, regardless of use. The system will charge residents based on actual consumption, promoting conservation, he said.

"This puts better control in the hands of the customers," Chow said.

The new system also will offer additional auditing capability to prevent erroneous bills, officials said.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the city has worked to improve its operations. Even before awarding the new contracts, officials had largely ended a practice in which public works employees didn't actually read meters but estimated readings instead, Harris said.

In fiscal year 2010, Harris said there were 19,900 skipped readings. By fiscal year 2014, that number had dropped to 269, he said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she has noticed improvements in the city's water-billing practices, but problems still exist.

"We have fewer complaints, although we still receive them," she said. "I'm hoping the new meters make a world of difference."

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