Things were going smoothly for Amanda Dunlap the first year and a half after she bought a house in Northeast Baltimore. Then, she got a shocking bill in the mail.
For the bill covering November 2020, the city charged her $33 for water use at the property, which she rents out. It was $66 for the next month. Come February, the bill for the last month shot up to $61,338 — with no explanation.
“I don’t have that type of money,” said Dunlap, 30, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Bayview.
It took eight months to get answers. While the city’s Department of Public Works conducted an investigation into the claims of astronomical water consumption, her bill continued to pile up, with Dunlap on the hook for thousands more dollars each month. The August bill brought the total to $85,325.
Baltimore Public Works spokesman James Bentley II said the department finally determined there was a water “equipment failure” at Dunlap’s property and “the meter was reporting in error.”
The department replaced her meter Wednesday, the day after it received questions from a Baltimore Sun reporter. Dunlap found out about the meter being replaced from the reporter, receiving confirmation from a customer service agent a day later.
“We will monitor usage on the account for the next 2 weeks to ensure the new equipment is reading and reporting properly,” Bentley said in an email. “After that point, we will work with the customer to ensure her bill is adjusted to reflect an accurate amount due.”
Dunlap’s case is the latest black eye for Baltimore City and Baltimore County’s shared water billing system, which faced scrutiny following a report from the city and county inspectors general. The report found 22,000 water meters were broken, many producing readings of zero water consumption, resulting in customers not being charged. This comes after the city awarded an $83.5 million contract to Itron Inc. in 2013 to overhaul the meter system.
Dunlap isn’t the first person to be hit with an outsized bill.
Residents complained about rapidly rising water bills in 1978 before the city’s Board of Estimates. Others told the City Council in 2009 of dramatically disparate water bills.
In 2012, the city had to refund $4.2 million to 38,000 households that were overcharged. Baltimore officials touted the new system instituted in 2016, saying it would cut down on human error, only for residents to complain of surging bills.
Then, in 2018, hundreds of customers were charged more than $50,000 each for water, with officials blaming a software upgrade.
The Department of Public Works strives for “100% accuracy in our water billing system,” Bentley said in an emailed statement last week.
“When issues arise, we are committed to working with our customers to remedy the problem,” he said. “We will continue to work to ensure all customers can have confidence in the water bill they receive.”
Still, the shock of receiving such a bill is confusing and disheartening, Dunlap said.
Dunlap’s bill for January said approximately 3.8 million gallons of water had been used at the property over the past month, enough to fill almost six Olympic-size swimming pools.
“At first I thought, ‘This is just crazy. Even if a toilet was overflowing and a leak was happening, there’s no way that could equate to [$61,338],’” she said. “I’m freaking out.”
Shortly after she received the bill, she called the Department of Public Works. She said employees there asked about running water and whether the toilet was leaking. They told her to talk to her tenant, to ask about anything suspicious.
“When I contacted him, he said, ‘No,’” Dunlap said. “Following that, they said we could do a leak test.”
Dunlap also tried to get her bill adjusted, but said public works staffers told her she couldn’t file for an adjustment until they concluded their investigation. Dunlap continued to work with them.
She went to her property, shut off the water for an hour and measured the water levels, she said, adding that the test revealed no problems.
Dunlap was frustrated by the process, describing it like an endless loop of customer service employees, and concerned about what would happen with her bill. She wondered whether the city would shut her water off when the coronavirus state of emergency was lifted, harming her tenants, and whether they’d put a lien on her house for the unpaid bill. Why was it taking so long?
Several factors contributed to the delay, Bentley said.
“It can take awhile to determine the root cause of some of these technical issues,” he said.
He said the department had been in the process this spring of revamping meter operations and county billing, leading to ”longer periods of review.”
Nonetheless, he said, Public Works Director Jason Mitchell has “ordered a full review of all water billing operations,” holding daily meetings “to review and revamp processes and institute new training.”
It’s hardly a consolation to Dunlap.
“I just finished school,” she said. “Working full time and going through all of this is hard.”
She called the office of City Councilwoman Danielle McCray, whose District 2 encompasses Dunlap’s property in the 4800 block of Sipple Ave., which is in the city’s Frankford neighborhood.
“My office contacted DPW upon being made aware of the billing concern,” McCray said in a statement. “DPW is in contact with the property owner and is working to remedy the issue.”
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Dunlap said she originally hoped to buy another property in Baltimore in the future.
“This water bill issue is making me rethink everything; it’s making me nervous,” Dunlap said. “Things with the city, you just never know.”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.