Kathleen Kreimer thought she was a pretty good judge of her Union Bridge neighbors and their habits, so it never occurred to her to tell them that she was only guessing when she made out some of their water bills.
Now the veteran town clerk is on unpaid leave as Town Council members review accounts and the Maryland attorney general awaits their explanation.
It seems that 55 meters, more than one-sixth of the town's 300 meters, are not working. Some meters have been stuck for years, in one case for 14 years.
Mrs. Kreimer said she never thought to notify customers about the estimates when she sent out the bills. She said she tried to be fair and that she had a pretty good idea of how much water everyone in town used.
When one customer's son was killed last spring, she said, "I reduced his [estimated] water usage."
The discovery of the guesswork came after the town ended a 20-year water contract in March with Kreimer Construction Co., owned by Joe Kreimer, the town clerk's husband. Another town employee, who then assumed the meter-reading job, alerted officials to the problem.
Mrs. Kreimer, who had been town clerk for 21 years, went on an indefinite unpaid leave last week under an agreement between her and the Town Council.
But for many of her neighbors in the northwest Carroll County town, the damage has been done. Union Bridge, population 932, is small enough for residents to know the clerk personally, and many feel betrayed.
"Kathy Kreimer would walk in here and say, 'I'm here to read the meter,' " said Sherri Helmstetter, whose family lives on South Elger Street. "She would walk downstairs with the flashlight."
When the new meter reader stopped by her home this month, Mrs. Helmstetter saw that the log contained years of identical readings. The meter hadn't moved since 1981, four years before her parents bought the house, but the family had received bills for water use ranging from 19,000 to 26,000 gallons a quarter. The Helmstetters say they never knew the bills were not based on actual readings.
Mrs. Helmstetter said she believes she was overcharged. The family of six spends three days each week at her parents' campground in Western Maryland. For the quarter that ended Dec. 31, the family was billed for 23,000 gallons, she said, "but that was deer season, and 47 days out of the 90 days, we weren't here."
Dean Pennington, a landlord and gun shop owner, said he never understood the inconsistencies in his bills. An apartment with two tenants would be billed for an average of 6,000 gallons, another for 20,000 gallons. But he said he didn't realize the meters were broken.
When Mr. Pennington searched town records, he found that six of the 15 water meters for which he pays bills were stuck.
"I really feel it needs an external audit," he said.
He noted a rental unit that was billed for an average of 39,000 gallons a quarter. "I just assumed all these years," he said of the readings. "I'm fussing at these people about water and putting in new faucets and trying to conserve, and I'm consistently paying for 37,000 to 39,000 gallons."
Mayor Perry L. Jones said an outside audit "may not be a bad idea. But we'll go over it with people, and that's probably as good as an outside audit."
Councilman Selby Black said he wants to look at bills to the town for water meters and the ages of meters in service.
Mr. Kreimer said he replaced about 30 meters a year during the 20-year contract.
Mrs. Kreimer defended her practice, noting that the town ordinance permits estimated bills.
For 14 years?
"The ordinance doesn't say when you have to change meters," she said.