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Councilman seeks action on overdue commercial water bills

Carl Stokes, chair of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee is pictured at a work session at City Hall on the Harbor Point development.
Carl Stokes, chair of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee is pictured at a work session at City Hall on the Harbor Point development. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Councilman Carl Stokes is calling on the city to stop shutting off water service to delinquent residential customers until officials take more aggressive action to collect past-due business accounts.

Stokes said Monday that a hearing will be scheduled this month to discuss the Department of Public Works' approach to collecting more than $40 million in long-overdue water bills. The Baltimore Sun reported last month that more than 350 commercial accounts together owed $15 million in overdue payments, but so far the city hasn't cut off service to them.

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"It's fair and equitable that everyone pays the bill or works out a payment plan, but apparently the big guys don't get theirs turned off," Stokes said. "The only people who have had their water turned off have been residential customers who have smaller bills. They feel like they have been targeted."

Marcia Collins, legislative liaison for the public works agency, said Monday that the city has collected $8 million in back payments since sending shut-off notices to about 25,000 delinquent customers beginning in late March. The accounts include customers in both the city and Baltimore County.

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Four large commercial properties are expected to receive turn-off notices Tuesday, giving them 10 days to pay or be disconnected, city officials said. The city has collected about $1.4 million from 134 large businesses, she said.

"We are reaching out to those businesses and institutions to get them to come in and clear up what they owe," Collins told council members Monday. "And now we're getting ready to actually look at turning off service for those we haven't made any progress with."

Service has been disconnected for 2,000 users. The majority of them 1,300 — have made payments and had their water service restored, city officials said.

In all, full and partial payments have been collected from nearly 9,000 past-due accounts.

Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman, said some small businesses could be included in the number of users who lost service. A breakdown of the numbers is based on properties with large and small meters, not according to whether they are commercial or residential properties, he said.

At that point, nearly 90 percent of the 1,600 users cut off were in Baltimore County, although delinquent city properties accounted for the majority of unpaid bills. About half of the city's 400,000 water customers are in the county.

Customers who have owed the city at least $250 in unpaid water bills for six months or more are subject to the cut-offs.

Collins said Monday the list of scofflaws is "constantly revolving."

"We're not asking that they don't eventually collect or turn off residential customers, but we are asking that there's a moratorium until everybody is treated equally under this," Stokes said.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was pleased that the city's action has caused some commercial properties to pay their past-due bills.

"Some people think commercial accounts aren't being paid. They are," Young said.

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