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Politics

Audit: Baltimore doesn’t know how much water customers were charged and wasn’t collecting overdue bills

For years Baltimore City had no process to collect on customers with delinquent water bills and was not monitoring billing complaints from its Baltimore County customers to ensure that they were addressed in a timely manner, a city audit released Wednesday shows.

The report, covering fiscal years 2019 and 2020, said the city collected $389 million over that two-year period, but was unable to provide records of how much more was billed but never collected. The city manages 400,000 total water meters in the city and county.

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That lack of oversight creates the potential for lost revenue to the city, said Auditor Josh Pasch, echoing an issue raised in a 2020 joint report by the Baltimore and Baltimore County’s inspectors general. The system also confounds customers who have long suffered with a water billing system known for errors.

The audit, presented Wednesday to the city’s Board of Estimates, said that city officials have failed to make sure all billing complaints are acknowledged within 48 hours and resolved within five business days — benchmarks set by city policy. Officials with the Department of Public Works told auditors they monitored the complaints of city customers, but not those in the county, to track how quickly they were handled.

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The joint report from the inspectors general, issued in December 2020, showed the city also lagged in addressing requests for repairs, particularly in the county. According to the report, there were more than 8,000 open “tickets” for problem water accounts that had been unresolved, many of them for years.

Baltimore’s Department of Public Works has long been plagued by water billing system problems. In 2012, for example, a city audit of billing errors found the department overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million combined. More issues have emerged in the years since. In 2019, it was revealed the city had not billed the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Inner Harbor for $2.3 million in water used since 2007. The city law department still is working to resolve that matter.

Auditors are recommending the city adjust its response time expectations for customer complaints. Five days may not be adequate time to address issues that require repairs to water meters, Pasch said. A more realistic benchmark would make it easier for the city to know if customer needs are being met, he said.

“If there’s a leaking pipe, and that’s going to take a day or two to get parts, that’s also measured against the five-day bench mark,” he said.

Baltimore officials also failed to monitor their own monthly reports detailing customer accounts overdue 30 days or longer, the audit said. Late notices are not sent to customers with overdue bills and accounts are not referred to the city’s Law Department or collections agencies if overdue, according to audit. Auditors did not estimate how much potential revenue has been lost as a result.

“We cannot properly run our city if there isn’t a clear understanding of who oversees collecting which revenue and how is it done,” Comptroller Bill Henry, a Democrat and one of five Board of Estimates’ members, said Wednesday.

Henry asked to receive regular updates on the city’s progress toward addressing the concerns raised in the audit.

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Officials with the Department of Public Works said they agreed with the audit’s findings but noted several years have passed since it was done.

Matthew Garbark, the department’s deputy director, said city officials have been working on a “turnaround initiative” for the last six months, and have drastically reduced some of the backlogs noted in both the audit and the inspectors general report.

A primary goal is making sure customers receive bills in the first place, Garbark said. He acknowledged the city isn’t always meeting that goal, but a team has been created to review bills that are “exceptions” — either uncharacteristically high or low. Those bills are reviewed daily and the most egregious issues are brought directly to Public Works Director Jason Mitchell, Garbark said.

Baltimore also has created a report that flags accounts where there may be leaks costing customers more, he said.

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Officials have focused on water meters, too, zeroing in on those providing no readings at all. Commercial accounts have been prioritized because they generate more revenue and require more difficult repairs, Garbark said. Since February 2021, Baltimore has cut its number of meters with no readings in half to about 2,500, he said.

Outstanding work orders have been reduced from 7,721 in April to 1,124, Garbark reported. Of the 8,000 open tickets noted in the inspectors general report, all but 30 have been addressed, he said.

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“We have made tremendous progress in that area,” he said.

Garbark said officials also are trying to improve the experience for customers dealing with the city’s water billing operation. They hope to begin tracking data from the call center to gauge its effectiveness. Officials also would like to survey customers at the end of their calls.

On Tuesday, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott announced the creation of a income-based discount program for city water customers who are struggling to afford their bills.

Scott said Wednesday he was pleased with the headway the department has made thus far.

“To see this progress, which is significant progress — not for us, but for the residents of Baltimore — is a big deal,” he said.


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