All utility bills are not created equal.
Miss some payments to the electric or telephone utility and your power or phone service might be shut off. Neglect to pay your water bill in Baltimore and some counties, though, and risk losing your home.
With such a severe price to pay, it's imperative that you deal with water bill disputes immediately - and not in the same way you might treat a lot of your other debt.
Beth Woodell tackled her city water bill problem head-on when she noticed that her bill statements seldom matched the reading from the meter in her basement. After several attempts over a year to correct the problem, Woodell said she was ready to give up. Perhaps, she said, she should just pay her possibly inaccurate bill.
"I have never, in 16 years of residence at my current address, had anyone read the meter," said Woodell, a 49-year-old training consultant who lives downtown. "I'm never home during the week. I believe they have been billing me for water I've never used.
"Every time I called about my problem, somebody assured me that it would be taken care of," Woodell said.
"But it wasn't. I'd find that there was no change in my bill. ... Is it even worth it to fight City Hall? Should I just shut up and pay it already?"
When I say it's imperative to deal with your water bill quickly, I don't mean you should just keel over and let the city shake the money out of your pockets. I merely meant that it's a bill you can't ignore, something more like your mortgage or rent than many other bills. The Sun has written extensively about how hundreds of city homeowners have lost their houses to foreclosure over small debts other than property taxes, many of them being unpaid water and sewer bills.
Although the city recently adopted a number of measures to reduce the number of people who get heinously penalized for falling behind on payments, you can still lose your home if you don't pay for your water.
You should always speak up and make every attempt to correct any inaccurate bill. Paying an erroneous bill doesn't make the problem go away; it just prolongs the problem.
But there's a right way and a wrong way to fight a water bill.
"First, check around your house to make sure there's no leak," said Kurt L. Kocher, a city Department of Public Works spokesman. "You also have to call us as soon as you spot a problem."
Dialing 311 will usually do the trick. Once the city is alerted, the Public Works Department has 15 days to examine your meter. If for some reason, the checker is unable to bill you accurately after an inspection, the city will bill you based on an estimate of your last record of prior real usage while they continue to investigate.
Woodell was on the right path.
When she called last year, she requested that someone read her basement meter. At the time, she also requested that an external meter be installed so that access to her basement wasn't necessary. A meter reader eventually visited her home and verified that the internal reading of 1,125 cubic feet of water was lower than the readings on her bill, which ranged from 1,137 to 1,139 cubic feet.
Woodell said she was told that the bill would be fixed. It was not.
"In January, I received a meter reading on my bill for 1,152," Woodell said. "After blowing my stack, I called the city again."
At the time, Woodell said, she declined to pay her bill.
This month, she received a bill of $161.50 for two quarters of service. The reading on her bill was for 1,168. The meter in her basement read 1,138 on that same day, April 19, she said.
"If it's wrong, I don't want to pay it," Woodell said. "If it's right, I want someone to assure me that the meter is reading accurately."
Kocher said lack of access to Woodell's basement meter caused some of the problems.
About 18,000 of the 44,000 water bill accounts in the city have meters inside the house, Kocher said. The city is researching the possibility of switching to an automated meter-reading system. In the meantime, it hired a contractor to install an outside meter at Woodell's house in late January.
"I believe we were dealing with a defective meter inside her home," Kocher said. "When the external meter was installed, it was turned back to zero, so we are getting accurate readings of her use pattern now. We made a $44 adjustment to her bill in her favor. That's a relatively low bill."
John Brewer, division chief of water billing, assured me that the bill Woodell has now is accurate.
"We got a real read," Brewer said. "The inspector came back two billing cycles ago and said she was billed too much based on an estimate. It takes four weeks to make an adjustment to your bill."
Both men said the city would continue to monitor Woodell's meter to make sure nothing further is owed to her.
If Woodell or any other city water customer has a dispute, they can pay the bill and get a credit back from the city when the issue is resolved, Brewer advised, or (this is the method I would recommend) make a good-faith payment based on their typical water bill.
So if you usually get a bill for $80 a quarter and you get billed $500 instead, notify the city and then pay the $80 until the case is resolved.
In the past, the minimum that could trigger the city to send your debt to tax sale was $100. That means that falling behind on one quarter could trap many households, because the average home with two parents and two small children has a quarterly water bill of $200.
The recent revision by the General Assembly to raise the minimum from $100 to $250 makes it a little tougher for the tax sale to ensnare you. But the threat of losing your home remains.
To help residents avoid such disaster, the city has an electronic system that alerts them to bill discrepancies. It would still be wise to call if you spot a problem.
Starting next month, city senior citizens whose household income is $25,000 or less can get a 30 percent break on water and sewer bills. Low-income residents can get more grant money to help pay their bills. And, instead of letting bills accumulate, the city has begun shutting water off sooner to force residents to deal with delinquent water bills. Water is now shut off at $250 rather than $500.
Woodell's $161 bill didn't put her in jeopardy, but letting it linger wasn't a good idea either.
"I had no idea you could lose your home over a water bill," Woodell said. "This makes me even more relieved it's taken care of."
Find Dan Thanh Dang's column archive at baltimoresun.com/consuming