A year of challenges for city residents

A year ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave an inaugural address that was both lofty in vision and grounded in reality — the poetry of growing Baltimore by 10,000 residents in the next decade tempered by the prose of how to get there.

"We must focus on the fundamentals and do them well," the newly elected mayor said, "or face the prospect of trying to do everything — most of it poorly."

But as Rawlings-Blake concludes her first year as elected mayor, having previously served the final two years of her predecessor's term, her administration has faltered on some of those fundamentals.

Water bills arrived in some mailboxes with erroneously exorbitant sums. Property tax bills similarly were miscalculated — state errors the city never caught — with homestead and other credits going to owners who didn't qualify for them. And most recently, a Baltimore Sun investigation found that drivers received tickets from speed cameras while traveling below the posted limit or even stopped at a light.

Along with a series of massive, traffic-snarling water main breaks, and an expensive dispute over upgrading the city phone system, the year 2012 was troubled by what political observer Matthew Crenson called "internal goof-ups."

"When you don't correct things immediately, it changes people's perspective on government," said Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "They become less satisfied with the service they're getting. In some senses, city government becomes less legitimate. It's important not just to respond, but to respond fast."

In an interview, Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that the missteps have taken a toll on the public's confidence in City Hall. She said fixes are under way, but it will take time to resolve problems that in some cases were years in the making.

"It frustrates me when we get it wrong," the mayor said. "So whether it's a water bill or it's speed cameras or anything, when we fall short it motivates me to make sure that we get it right. And the frustrating part for me as well is sometimes it takes a long time or longer than I'd like to untangle problems that have lingered."

She called the focus of her administration "reform," and cited examples of efforts to rein in spending and address existing problems in a city that has lost a third of its population since World War II.

"The things we've identified as broken that need to be fixed, we're checking them off," Rawlings-Blake said. "Whether it's working with the school system to right-size the school system and create a funding stream for new construction or whether it's dealing with the fire and police pension — an issue that's been kicked down the road for years — or a plan to reinvigorate rec centers. … All the things we know need to be fixed, we continued to make progress on those things."

But as the cost of living in the city seems ever on the rise, some residents have grown impatient, if not outright angry. When the water rate goes up by 9 percent every year, for example, shouldn't the charges at least be accurate? they ask.

"They were crying poverty, shutting down rec centers and starting the bottle tax," said Patterson Park resident Matt Gonter, a self-described gadfly who has tracked property tax credits that were granted erroneously. "Why don't you start collecting the money owed in the first place?"

Some join the mayor in counseling patience.

"Admittedly, much went wrong this year from the perspective of people who live or work in the city," said Anirban Basu, an economist who runs the Baltimore-based consulting firm Sage Policy Group. "They were charged excessively for water. They received erroneous tickets, and city infrastructure crumbled.

"However, many of these problems were inherited or, at a minimum, were things that the city could do little about," Basu said. "Many of these issues were not generated this year."

Error-ridden water bills

Residents have complained about erratic water bills for years. But the issue grabbed widespread attention in 2012 when the city's auditor found the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million. A Sun investigation also uncovered numerous problems, including a $100,000 overbilling of Cockeysville Middle School and a Randallstown woman who'd been receiving her neighbor's bills for seven years.

The errors compounded, tripling sewage bills for customers of the city system who live in Baltimore County, and the city admitted that some workers fictionalized bills. At the same time, The Sun reported, a dozen area businesses, nonprofits and federal government organizations owed the city more than $10.5 million for water bills that were past due by at least six months.

The administration pledged a series of reforms, including increasing the number of meter readers, inspectors and customer service representatives. Public works officials say the average waiting time to speak to a customer service representative has been reduced to two minutes from a peak of 24 minutes in February.

The city also placed meter readers on permanent routes to ensure consistency in reading, began locating thousands of "hard to find" meters to reduce reliance on estimated bills, and started replacing about 14,000 meters inside buildings with curbside meters that can transmit readings with a wireless system. Meter readers now estimate about 225 readings per day, down from 1,100 two years ago, officials said.

"We didn't get into this situation overnight, and I don't think any reasonable person would think that we could fix it overnight," Rawlings-Blake said. "But that doesn't stop the frustration from me and push from me to make sure we're getting it right."

City Auditor Robert L. McCarty says he's continuing to monitor the city's progress in issuing accurate water bills. Activist Linda Stewart, known around Baltimore as "Water Bill Woman," said there's still much work to be done to improve the system.

"I still see the same thing happening," she said. "People are still paying water bills for empty lots. They're still not getting their credits. I still have people writing to me about their bills. I feel helpless. What can I tell them but 'keep pestering the city?'"

Water, water everywhere

Exorbitant bills were especially infuriating in a year when decades-old water lines cracked underground with alarming regularity, sending water streaming down streets while disrupting traffic and sometimes gas and electric services.

In July, a main broke in the heart of downtown, under Light Street near Lombard, disrupting traffic in the area for weeks as the city repaired it and replaced nearby lines and valves. In November, a 60-inch main under Charles and 20th streets burst, creating a rushing river down the thoroughfare.

In December, two blocks of East Monument Street finally were reopened, five months after a 120-year-old storm drain broke and caused the street to collapse. The damage extended beyond the pavement, with businesses in the area losing customers and laying off staff.

There were other breaks as well, smaller perhaps but still creating havoc, prompting Rawlings-Blake to accelerate the pace at which aging mains are replaced. The city had been replacing about five miles of pipes a year and hopes to increase that to 40 miles a year. To help pay for the work, the city again increased water rates by 9 percent.

In February, the mayor testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, arguing that cities need federal dollars to update aging water systems and relieve ratepayers of some of the burden.

In an interview, Rawlings-Blake said the crumbling infrastructure ultimately adds to the cost of providing water to the roughly 1.8 million customers in the region.

"Even if we get the water bills right, we are, through an aging infrastructure … wasting our resources," she said. "Because even if the bills are 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, at the end of the day, all of the customers are paying for the fact that we have an aging infrastructure."

Property tax fiasco

Already paying the highest property tax rate in the state, many city residents were more than a little outraged by a Sun investigation that found fraud and errors in how real estate is assessed and taxed.

Million-dollar-plus condos had property tax bills of barely a thousand dollars. Owners of boarded-up houses were getting homestead tax credits that are supposed to go only to properties they actually live in. And some owners managed to double-dip, getting homestead credits on their residences plus other properties.

Since then, Rawlings-Blake tripled the staff and funding for a program to root out such disparities, and it's already showing results, according to William Voorhees, the Finance Department's director of revenue and tax analysis.

"The tax system is becoming fairer," Voorhees said. "We are catching people."

Voorhees said the billing integrity program has found cases of mistakenly authorized property tax credits totaling about $4 million for fiscal 2012. It forwarded that information to the state, which will try to recover the money from owners who should not have received homestead and other credits. That figure may grow, he said, if some of those homeowners erroneously received the credits for previous years as well.

The Finance Department is also working on a way to track major property improvements, to prevent cases in which owners were still being assessed on their homes' original values, Voorhees said.

"We still have a ways to go," said Gonter, the Patterson Park resident who has been looking at improperly granted homestead credits for several years. But while he still finds mistakes in the system, Gonter said he is pleased at advances such as a new state law that adds a fine of 25 percent for a fraudulently received credit.

Voorhees said the city hopes to start developing mechanisms to determine whether there are problems in the collection of other taxes, such as those on hotels, parking and beverage containers. In the end, he said, it comes down to a question of fairness.

"We don't want people paying more taxes than they should legally be paying," he said. "But we don't want them to be paying less."

Feud over phones

Competing efforts by two city offices to overhaul the city's aging telephone system sparked a controversy that grabbed headlines throughout the year and continues today as a court battle.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the administration from installing a new phone system using a vendor that Pratt says should have been subjected to a new bidding process. Pratt's office had supervised a request for bids that led to a proposed contract with IBM. Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, rejected that contract in July.

The city's inspector general investigated the administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment — which Rawlings-Blake's top aides had categorized as a small pilot program — and found possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that former members of the mayor's administration withheld information from other city officials about the project and even lied to the City Council president.

The administration later proposed a memorandum of understanding between the two feuding offices that would create a new commission — controlled by the mayor's staff — to oversee the phone system. Pratt has said she believes the deal is one-sided.

The matter remains unresolved, with Pratt accusing the administration of wasting $400,000 a month while refusing for political reasons to replace the phone system. Rawlings-Blake's technology officer has said he wants to see a reduction of about 15 percent to 20 percent of the cost of the IBM contract, which called for an estimated $320,000 in travel and relocation costs for IBM workers and tax breaks for out-of-state workers whose home states have lower tax rates.

Rawlings-Blake said recently she believes the parties will be able to put aside their differences and upgrade the system. "I'm certain we'll be able to move forward in partnership with the comptroller's office," the mayor said.

Speed ticket mistakes

As the year came to a close, The Sun published the results of another investigation, this time into the city's speed camera system. The newspaper found inaccuracies with seven of the city's 83 automated speed cameras, issuing tickets to vehicles traveling less than 20 mph and to one stopped at a red light.

And speed camera contractors in the city, Baltimore County and elsewhere were being paid based on the number of citations issued or paid — a so-called "bounty system" approach that Gov. Martin O'Malley said is illegal.

Rawlings-Blake has appointed a task force to study the issue and recommend steps to prevent errors. At the panel's latest meeting, Baltimore's speed camera contractor disclosed that several of the city's automated cameras have an error rate of more than 5 percent.

The panel is expected to conclude its meetings in February and issue a report soon after.

Ron Ely, the editor of Stop Big Brother Maryland, an anti-speed camera blog, said city officials are "starting to grasp the depth of their problem and are now making a genuine effort to come clean" by investigating the speed cameras. But, he added, he still has concerns about the city's system, including what he said was an obvious lack of oversight.

The mayor points to the progress. "Even some of the harshest critics of the camera system in general have said we're moving in the right direction," Rawlings-Blake said.

As with other matters, she said, "the concern I expressed with my departments is that we get it right."