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Baltimore ditches plans to outsource water meter repairs; city will train in-house employees

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott held a news conference to say the city would not outsource DPW Meter Shop work.

Four months after his predecessor announced he was privatizing the city’s water meter shop and laying off its more than 60 employees, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has reached an agreement to keep the staff.

Then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in October that the city would close the meter shop, which is responsible for installing, repairing and manually reading water meters. He planned to outsource the work to Itron Inc., a West Coast energy company that was paid more than $80 million to install digital water meters in the city and Baltimore County beginning in 2013.

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However, a contract with Itron for the meter shop operations was never signed, and the shop’s employees remained on the city staff through the end of the Democrat’s term. He left office in December.

Scott announced Friday that the members of the meter shop staff, who are almost entirely city residents, will remain in place and receive training to ensure they repair meters effectively. The city will create a task force, including members of the mayor’s office and the Department of Public Works, to implement the training, he said.

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Plagued for years by billing problems, scrutiny of the beleaguered system has increased following the release in December of a joint report by city Inspector General Isabel Cumming and Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan. The report, the culmination of a nine-month investigation, detailed millions of dollars of lost revenue to both the city and county from the joint water system.

Two issues were highlighted: Tens of thousands of digital water meters in both the city and county are not fully functional; and 8,000 “tickets” flagging problems with county water accounts have not been resolved by the city.

Many malfunctioning meters issue readings of zero water use, resulting in incorrect bills to customers and lost revenue to both municipalities, the report found.

Acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark said Friday that getting city staff up to speed on the meter technology is the first step toward fixing other issues with the water system. The meters must be working correctly before other improvements can be made, he said.

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Asked why staff members weren’t trained when digital meters began to come online around 2017, Scott said he had no explanation.

“I can’t explain why previous administrations did any of the things they did,” the Democratic mayor said. “I can only talk about how we’re going to do a systematic investigation into how we can fix this water system once and for all.”

The city and county have spent a collective $133 million on contracts related to the joint system since 2011 in hopes of fixing its numerous problems, but problems persist. Residents regularly report being outrageously overcharged, while some businesses have gone years without paying a bill.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated problems in the meter shop. Most employees there did not work for months, despite remaining on the payroll. All of the shop’s 63 staff members were placed on paid leave in March when COVID-19 swept into the city. By December, only 18 had returned to work, according to the report from Cumming and Madigan.

Garbark said Friday about 50% are now back at work, focusing on the city’s side of the water operation. Baltimore County signed an emergency six-month contract with Itron Inc. to conduct its portion of the meter readings, Garbark noted.

The remaining employees will return once the new task force gets to work in the next couple weeks, Garbark said. The task force plans to do an individual skills assessment for each staff member, he said.

The Baltimore City Council has announced plans to take a closer look at water billing in light of Cumming and Madigan’s report. The board called earlier this month for an investigative hearing on the topic; it has not yet been scheduled.

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