City to authorize $9.7 million more for water meter overhaul

The city's spending panel on Wednesday is slated to approve $9.7 million more to overhaul the city's huge water-meter system — on top of $83.5 million approved last year for the project.

The Board of Estimates is expected to authorize a contract with EMA Inc. to "ensure that the program moves forward efficiently and expeditiously," according to city documents. Among other tasks, EMA will be expected to provide oversight for the project, including budgeting and "quality assurance," officials said.

In November, city officials awarded an $83.5 million contract to Itron Inc. of Washington state to install meters for a new wireless meter system that will serve 400,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said the upgrade is part of an effort to end "outrageous" water bill mistakes that have infuriated residents and forced the city to issue millions in refunds.

When Itron was awarded the contract, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt said they planned to watch the project closely to make sure costs did not rise over time.

Young met with administration officials to discuss the new deal with EMA and left satisfied with the latest expense, his spokesman, Lester Davis, said.

EMA will intends to hire 51 percent of its new workers from Baltimore, Davis said.

Young last year championed a bill that would apply to a business receiving any city contract worth at least $300,000 or any project that gets at least $5 million in city assistance. It requires 51 percent of new jobs to go to residents of Baltimore. Under the proposal, businesses that do not comply could be barred from receiving city contracts for one year and face a $500 fine.

"They're committed to the 51 percent local hiring mandate," Davis said. "He is comfortable and satisfied with it. He still has his eye trained on this project. He wants to make sure the city is being prudent in terms of expenditures."

Pratt said EMA's work is needed.

"They're going to make sure Itron stays on schedule and within budget," she said. "The city doesn't have the resources or the skill-set to monitor this type of project; $83 million is a lot of money and we need someone to check on Itron."

Baltimore residents have long complained about erratic water bills, but the issue gained widespread attention in 2012 when the city auditor found the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million, and an investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered additional problems. Baltimore provides water service to about 410,000 customers, half of whom reside in Baltimore County.

Baltimore officials voted in July to raise water and sewer rates by 42 percent over three years to help pay for infrastructure and other improvements. City water service is paid for through a self-contained utility that is controlled by the mayor and does not go through the budget process.

Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that the EMA contract was part of her plan to reduce erroneous water bills. 

"Not a day goes by where residents don't express their frustration with the need to reform and bring reliability to our water billing process," she said. "I share that frustration, which is why we continue to act in bringing a reliable and efficient system to Baltimore."

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