Baltimore's Department of Public Works plans to overhaul the way it reads hundreds of thousands of water meters and bill customers after getting complaints that estimated readings were leading to unfairly high bills.
Officials described the upgrades Tuesday at a City Council committee hearing where members unanimously approved legislation barring estimated water bills for residential customers, said its sponsor, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
"I feel certain this is going to address the majority of the kinds of spikes we have seen," she said of high bills. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the measure Monday; if approved, it could take effect in time for the third quarterly bill.
The overhaul will include quick changes such as reorganizing staff and reducing the response times for investigating billing errors, said Celeste Amato, a spokeswoman for Public Works. Over time, she said, officials plan to install automated water meters for all customers and provide historical usage information in bills.
"While we understand the concern with estimation … it's time to upgrade the entire thing," she said.
Public Works provides water to about 411,000 accounts in Baltimore and Baltimore County, serving 1.8 million people, and there are 36 people who manually read those meters. Officials say estimating bills is a common practice for utilities and is necessary because some meters are inaccessible.
Clarke said her office has been receiving calls about high bills since the summer, and so have her colleagues. They analyzed complaints and found that estimated bills were the common factor — and that customer service staff were swamped. "They can barely answer the phone, so people are sitting on hold forever," Clarke said.
Residents, some of them elderly, were desperate for help, she said. One Waverly resident received an $11,000 bill for her townhouse that was quickly corrected to $176, the councilwoman said. But once bills were adjusted, there were delays while the city finance department updated its records, she said.
Charlene Corruthers, who lives in the Grove Park community of Northwest Baltimore, said she called city officials when she received two bills within two months — both estimated. Three of her neighbors also got a series of estimates.
"It makes me think nobody's in this neighborhood to read the meter," she said. "I don't understand why they're picking on us. It's crazy."
Ronald Monk of the Lakeland neighborhood of South Baltimore finally paid several water bills that were twice as high as usual. He and his neighbors suspected the problem stemmed from leaks at Annapolis Road and Wegworth Lane that were ultimately fixed. But he was unable to get someone to adjust his bill.
"They don't want to talk to you on the phone," he said. "That thing was leaking for a year down there. We have nobody to talk to." There are seven people in the department's call center and 46 in the utility billing section.
Public Works plans to roll out automated meters for its 11,000 commercial customers first, which contribute nearly two-thirds of the revenue from water bills, Amato said.
Automating commercial customers in the city and the county would free additional meter readers for residential customers, she said.
After the automated meters have been tested, they would begin phasing them in for residential customers, Amato said. In total, the upgrades could cost as much as $100 million, she said.
The current system has been in place for more than 30 years, she said.
Part of the problem stems from about 17,000 inaccessible meters — devices that are located inside homes or have been paved over by customers, Amato said. In some communities the meters are below the water table and at times must be pumped out to be read, she said. In 2010, severe storms buried meters in inches of snow and ice for more than a month.
City officials also want to make bills more customer-friendly, providing consumption history and Internet-accessible accounts. "We want to make it as good as we can get it to run until we are able to make some changes," Amato said.
But there are some options for customers with billing problems right now.
Customers with questions about payment of a water bill should call 410-396-3988; those with other billing inquiries should call 410-396-5398. If residents experience extremely high bills due to a leak or plumbing problem within their home, they can request a credit on their bills with proof that a repair has been made — a plumber's bill, for example, Amato said.
"The city wants to incent you to keep your side of the system working properly," she said. "We want customers to catch problems on their side and invest in the repairs."