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Water bills irritate tenants


A water billing issue that has caused a stir of consumer complaints in Howard County is now drawing attention from Congress.

A provision in the Senate energy bill, which passed 88-11 on April 25, would provide tax incentives to landlords and property owners who install sub- meters in apartments and condos. Submeters keep track of exactly how much water each apartment uses, which helps apartment owners bill their tenants accurately.

Water conservationists and housing officials hope the measure, which still must be agreed to by the House, will spur landlords and tenants to become more responsible water users.

The amendment would give landlords a $30 tax deduction for each submeter they install and tax breaks that would allow them to recoup as much as a quarter of their cost. Submeters can cost between $100 and $250 to install.

"We can start to change the way these landlords do business and encourage people to save water at the same time," said Jeff Rosato, a legislative assistant for Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who sponsored the proposal. "It's a win-win situation."

The legislation could have far-reaching effects in Howard County, where several thousand apartment and condo owners bill tenants for water and sewage based on estimates instead of meters, a practice known as a Ratio Utility Billing System, or RUBS.

Instead of keeping track of the exact amount of water each tenant uses or including it in the rent, landlords contract with billing companies. These companies take the total amount of water used by the entire complex and then divide it among the residents based on the number of people who live in the apartment, square footage, or other variables.

Under such formulas, a tenant who travels two weeks a month could spend the same amount on water as someone who takes three showers a day.

Some Howard apartment-dwellers are paying as much as $40 a month for water, far in excess of what most residents who live in homes pay.

Howard County officials are struggling with how to regulate RUBS, which has drawn widespread complaints from tenants.

County leaders have formed a task force and have asked the county's consumer affairs advisory board to investigate RUBS. The board will make a recommendation to the County Council, which could then act on the recommendation or modify it.

The board hopes to make a recommendation by fall.

Over the past month, county officials have also begun a survey of low-income residents to see if they are being charged for water.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who chairs the committee, said the group is leaning toward regulating RUBS in some way.

"We're trying to resolve this issue," he said.

While county officials struggle with RUBS, residents are growing impatient. Kate Burton, who lives in the Reflections Apartment Homes in Columbia, has been taken to court twice over her water bill.

Burton said she would gladly pay a metered water bill but refuses to pay the bill she has received, which is based on RUBS. While she has talked with county officials about her water bills, she is not hopeful that action will be taken soon.

"But there will be a lot of people who are harmed if something isn't done soon," she said.

Nationally, many consumer advocates decry estimated billing as unfair.

Advocates say it does not encourage conservation, which is becoming critical because most of the East Coast is in a drought.

"I don't think [RUBS] encourages conservation at all," said Tony Gregg, water conservation manager for the city of Austin, Texas. "If anything, it gives you a perverse incentive to use more and get your share of water."

Some critics hope the tax breaks will persuade reluctant landlords to install submeters, which are difficult and expensive to install in older buildings.

"If you talk to people in the industry, the general feeling is the future of billing in the multi-family housing is submetering and not RUBS," said Dick Bennett, water conservation administrator at East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.

Marc Treitler, general counsel for Viterra Energy Services in San Diego, one of several companies known to administer RUBS in Howard County, agreed. Viterra encourages customers to install submeters but will administer RUBS as well.

"I'm sure it [the bill that would provide tax incentives] will tilt a bunch of [landlords] toward submetering," he said.

While Scott Southron, chief financial officer of National Water and Power in Santa Ana, Calif., another company that administers RUBS in Howard County, said he supports the measure, he also pointed out that not all buildings can be submetered.

"It's almost impossible to submeter older buildings with a single meter cost-effectively," he said.

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