The Baltimore ransomware attack reached Baltimore County government as officials there prepare to mail annual property tax bills — 14,000 of which include sewer charges that they can’t verify.
Officials revealed the problem Monday as Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced that the city and county will undertake a joint review of the water system that serves both jurisdictions. The system has been a source of long-standing tension between the city and the county.
About 235,000 county households and businesses get water from the city’s system, which is managed by the Baltimore public works department.
The city handles water billing for properties located in the county, but the county administers billing for sewer charges. The county calculates someone’s sewer charges based upon the previous year’s water consumption.
Because of the cyber attack, county officials say they haven’t been able to validate the necessary information for the 14,000 county customers’ sewer charges, which appear on the county’s yearly tax bills. Those bills arrive around July 1.
The cyber attack hit Baltimore on May 7 and the city has been unable to issue water bills since then.
The issue affects both residential and commercial properties, said T.J. Smith, a spokesman for Olszewski. Officials are sending letters to those customers.
The 14,000 county accounts in question are those for which city data showed unusual activity in 2018, such as abnormally low or high water consumption, Smith said.
“We were in the process of doing our own review of the accounts when the ransomware attack occurred,” Smith said.
According to documents the Olszewski administration sent to County Council on Monday, the majority of the 14,000 customers — more than 10,300 — are those for which city data shows little or no water was consumed at their property last year.
County officials believe that data is likely incorrect, so these customers could be charged higher sewer fees when the county gets updated data from the city, Smith said.
In a joint announcement issued Monday, Olszewski and Young said the time has come to examine agreements governing the water and sewer systems — which date to the 1970s. They also said they will look for ways to improve customer service.
The review “will evaluate and determine what is working well, and demonstrate where we need to focus our improvements,” Young said in the statement.
They did not say what sparked the review. But the water system has been a source of conflict between the two governments.
For example, the two jurisdictions have squabbled for several years over about $23 million in water charges the city says the county owes.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said details of the review are being ironed out. He said the review is an example of Young and Olszewski taking a regional approach to issues.
“The point is the agreement that’s currently in place has been since the ‘70s and could use a fresh set of eyes just to make sure customers in both jurisdictions are benefiting to the maximum extent,” Davis said.
In recent years, the city’s water billing system has been riddled with errors. The city began using a new meter system in 2017 to improve accuracy. Meanwhile, some county residents have criticized the county’s sewer billing methods as unfair.
In April, the County Council approved legislation extending the time residents have to appeal a disputed sewer fee. Councilman Julian Jones, who introduced that measure, said he was glad the city and county are looking at customer service issues.
“Any time we are charging people money, we need to make sure that our charges are accurate and correct,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.
Jones and other County Council members said they didn’t know details of what the review would entail. But some said they frequently encounter communication problems about infrastructure issues such as water main breaks. And residents often get confused about billing, they said.
“Having a better relationship with the city of Baltimore and more coordination, at a minimum, I think is definitely needed,” said Council Chairman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat. “We haven’t always had the best information flow.”
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said the current arrangement is “archaic” and lacks accountability.
“Often times water main breaks (in the county) only get repaired because council members get involved,” Marks said. “The city fixes the water main breaks, but then the county has to patch the roads. It’s confusing.”
Marks said he plans to introduce a resolution this summer to call upon the General Assembly to create a regional water authority with responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure and setting rates.
“It’s time to evaluate whether this is the right framework going forward,” he said.