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City Council members and residents accused top Baltimore officials Wednesday of unfairly targeting residents — and not businesses — as they attempt to collect more than $40 million in past-due water bills from 25,000 accounts.

Outside City Hall, a small group of protesters chanted opposition to city policies. Protester Lee Patterson said the "last thing" the city should charge for is water. "We've got to stop these evil water shut-offs," he said.

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In April, the city announced it would use shut-offs to collect overdue water bills. But council members grew concerned after the first two months of enforcement targeted mostly residents and not businesses.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the economic development committee, introduced a resolution calling for the Department of Public Works to stop shutting off water to Baltimore residential customers until the agency collects bills from commercial customers who owe millions of dollars.

"I have been dismayed with the number of phone calls my office receives about water shut-offs for local residents who owe no more than a couple hundred dollars while many of the larger commercial accounts are allowed to sustain bills of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in unpaid accounts," Stokes said.

His resolution was co-sponsored by the entire 15-member council.

More than 350 large commercial accounts — a category that includes businesses, nonprofits and government offices — account for a total of $15 million in unpaid water bills. City officials have said they will shut off water to customers with unpaid bills of more than $250 dating back at least half a year.

Public Works Director Rudy Chow told the panel Wednesday that city officials for years did not attempt to shut off water to commercial properties. He said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the agency this year to treat commercial entities the same as residents.

Chow said the city has shut off water to more than 3,000 residential properties but just two businesses. He said more than 1,600 of the residential properties have had their water restored after making payments.

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said nearly 200 commercial accounts have paid about $2.4 million. Chow said residential customers have paid about $8 million.

Still, Chow faced tough criticism.

"Corporations and big businesses get a pass, and we get penalized over peanuts," said Dwayne Tony Simmons of the Right to Housing Alliance.

Councilwoman Helen Holton noted that public works employees make two attempts to contact businesses before shutting off their water. "Why don't we go through these extra steps for residents?" she asked.

Chow described the shut-off program as a "work in progress" and said the agency is working to improve it.

More than 1,200 people have entered city assistance programs for help with their water bills, officials said.

"I can't change the past," Chow said. "DPW is here to help. Our intent is not to harm."

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