Foes of unmetered water bills rebut conservation argument


Proponents of a bill that would end estimated water bills for residents of unmetered apartments in Maryland challenged claims by the bill's opponents that the practice fostered water conservation at a hearing yesterday before the House of Delegates' Environmental Matters subcommittee.

The bill, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, and Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, would require landlords who charge separately for water to install meters in each unit by next year to measure exactly how much water is used by each tenant.

Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel Republican, also signed on as co-sponsor. Landlords violating the bill would have to pay a $1,000 fine.

Some landlords contract with billing companies to charge residents for a portion of water and sewer services charged to the entire building, based on various formulas that take into account square footage, number of tenants or number of bathrooms.

As a result, apartment renters can pay as much as $40 a month for water service, a cost similar to that charged owners of single-family homes with washing machines, lawns and pools, Bobo said. They also pay service fees of $1 to $3 to cover the costs of billing.

Other landlords install sub- meters to measure how much residents use. But retrofitting older buildings could cost several hundred dollars per apartment unit.

Several states, including Delaware and North Carolina, prohibit unmetered billing, Bobo said. Texas and Oregon regulate the practice.

The delegate said those who use the most water should "pick up some of the increase in water costs." But she said the increase in fees makes accurate measurements even more critical.

She held up an article published in yesterday's Sun about water and sewer fees increasing in Baltimore. "All of this is going to be passed on ... to the apartment renter," Bobo said. "If that's the case, we have to have an accurate estimate of water used."

"The additional money over the course of a year ... could make a difference whether a kid can play soccer or not," Bobo said. The fee for water service was probably not coupled with "concomitant decrease in rent," she said.

The companies that provide billing services market themselves as a way to increase cash flow for landlords, and, consequently, property values, she said.

Submetering apartments, however, is an excellent way of keeping track of actual use, Bobo said. "You get immediate feedback," she said.

'Terribly arbitrary'

Proponents of the bill agreed.

Unmetered water billing "involves little to no up-front cost," said Richard T. Miller of the Office of the People's Counsel, which represents residential consumers of utilities regulated by the public service commissioner. The tenant gets no benefit from this "terribly arbitrary" service, Miller said.

"They're not making the water fresher or adding bubbles or anything," Miller said.

Miller said that although water bills may encourage residents to conserve initially, "after a few years, they realize they're paying the same amount" regardless of their water usage.

Unmetered water billing "created a new industry that tenants get to pay for," said Stephen D. Hannan, administrator of Howard County's Office of Consumer Affairs. He recommended installation of low-flow toilets and other water fixtures rather than using rising water bills to promote conservation.

Water billing is a way to control utility costs in a time when they are rising faster than the cost of living, said Bill Griffin, vice president and general counsel of National Water & Power, a water billing company based in Santa Ana, Calif., and a representative of the National Submetering & Utility Allocation Association.

He rejected the notion that the public needed further protection, naming a number of options renters have, including contacting the company, contacting their landlords, filing in small claims courts or enlisting the state department of consumer affairs.

In addition, he said, the measure would "cut off an important method of submetering" by prohibiting "hot water ratio" meters, which bill residents based on the proportion of hot water they use. Because the law requires measuring the exact amount of water used, it would eliminate the ability for retrofitting some buildings, Griffin said.

More study advised

Opponents of the bill suggested the committee would benefit from additional research.

Doug Culkin of the National Apartment Association urged the committee to wait until a study conducted by the American Waterworks Association, funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, was released this summer.

The bill "is premature because of all these studies going on," said Michael Gisrael, representing the Maryland Multi-Housing Association Inc. "If you want to raise rents, this is a great bill."

Several local jurisdictions, including Howard and Montgomery counties, are working on their own legislation, which Gisrael said was more appropriate than a statewide bill at this time.

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