Damian Henson, 43, says he's a hard worker who always paid his bills on time.
But when his water bills spiked wildly, the Edmondson Village man thought it better to contest them than pay. Now he's received a turn-off notice from the city saying he owes $3,700.
"They tell you, 'Pay the bill.' The rest is on you," says Henson, a married father of one who manages a Wendy's. "I feel like it's pretty ridiculous I have a $3,700 water bill. We have a lot of unanswered questions. We need answers."
Henson was among 50 protesters who gathered Thursday outside City Hall to object to the city's decision to send turn-off notices to about 25,000 customers who owe a combined $40 million in long-overdue bills. City officials say they will shut off water to customers with unpaid bills of more than $250 dating back at least half a year. The notices include an estimated turn-off date, generally within 10 days of receipt.
This month, the city says, it began shutting off about 150 water accounts a day.
The protesters — a coalition of unions, advocacy groups and religious organizations — called on the city to collect overdue bills from commercial accounts before going after residents. They demanded the city impose a moratorium on water shut-offs until officials do more outreach and come up with a plan that protects renters if their landlords don't pay water bills.
"Water is a human right," said Charly Carter, director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political organization that led the protest. "Hundreds of residents have already lost service. These shut-offs will create a public health disaster."
The city's public works director defended the turn-off program Thursday, saying it's necessary to stop freeloaders from taking advantage of the system. He said payment plans and grants are available for low-income residents.
"Nobody likes to have their water turned off," said director Rudy Chow. "But it is an unfortunate fact of doing business that some customers fall behind on their bills. Standard industry practice is to turn off those customers who do not pay."
Chow said renters who receive turn-off notices should "be in communication with their landlords" to get them to pay the city.
Over the past two years, the problem of unpaid water bills has grown in Baltimore. As of April 2013, about 19,500 customers owed $29.5 million, records show. Since then, the amount owed has grown by nearly 40 percent.
In 2012, a review by The Baltimore Sun found that some big businesses, government offices and nonprofits had run up more than $10 million in unpaid water bills. Today, just 369 of the past-due accounts are commercial properties, but they make up $15 million of the missing revenue, city officials said.
More than 21,000 of the overdue accounts, representing about $28 million owed, are in Baltimore City. More than 4,000, which owe $13 million, are in Baltimore County.
The city has about 400,000 water customers, about half of them in Baltimore County.
Chow said the problem has grown in part because of a weak economic recovery in some Baltimore neighborhoods and because widespread water-billing errors in 2012 made officials reluctant to shut off water.
He said thus far this year, no properties that use commercial-size meters have had their water turned off, but said those that do not pay will face consequences.
"We are serious about collecting from commercial accounts," he said. "Our water and sewer system will not give a free pass to large users only to be subsidized by the residential customers. We will not tolerate those who can afford to pay but choose to abuse the system."
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Chow said more than 1,700 customers have paid about $1.3 million since the notices started going out. He said more than 500 customers have entered into payment plans, while hundreds more have contested bills or applied for city grants.
Chow said city workers will make at least two phone calls to businesses, government offices and apartment complexes with overdue bills before water is cut off. Customers who pay will have their water turned back on within 24 hours, city officials said.
The city has yet to release a list of which commercial properties owe the largest bills. The Sun has filed a public information request for that information. Chow said bankrupt RG Steel's delinquent city water bills account for about $7 million of the uncollected funds.