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‘If DPW was a business, it would be failing’: Baltimore council members still have water billing questions

Baltimore City Council members expressed frustration with the mayor’s administration and said they still have unanswered questions after an oversight meeting about water billing problems and an ongoing audit.

The oversight meeting, held by the council’s Legislative Investigations Committee, was spurred by a request from Council President Brandon Scott.

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Scott, a Democrat, said he hoped the 11 questions he sent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s administration Tuesday would be answered and the meeting would bring clarity to the 800 accounts and addresses being investigated to determine whether they are properly paying for water.

After the Wednesday night hearing, Scott said he won’t be satisfied until the audit is complete and the Department of Public Works provides answers to his questions, including how many water bills weren’t given out, where and for how long.

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“We want to have that information in our hands so that we can continue to press and hold them accountable,” Scott said. “This is an issue DPW can’t seem to fix on their own, so we’re going to have to put our heads together and fix it for them.”

Young and Scott are among the two dozen candidates in Baltimore’s April 28 primary for mayor.

Young ordered an audit of Baltimore’s water billing system in October, after discovering the city had failed for more than a decade to collect a total of $2.3 million for water from The Ritz-Carlton Residences, a development of nearly 200 condominiums near Federal Hill. After the audit was announced, dozens of additional businesses contacted the city to report problems with their bills, officials have said.

The Baltimore Sun reported this week that nearly 800 accounts may have problems with water billing, including 240 locations that may never have been billed, according to Sheryl Goldstein, chief of operations for the Democratic mayor. In addition to the 240 locations that potentially never have received a bill, Goldstein said the city has identified 310 locations that have accounts but might not be getting properly billed, and an additional 215 that may have stopped getting billed properly or at all after the city switched to its automated UMAX billing system in 2016.

About 60% of the flagged accounts and locations are connected with commercial entities, with the rest being residential, Goldstein said.

The audit is expected to be finished by the end of May, but Goldstein said there is a chance they may need more time.

Goldstein and Julie Day, the Department of Public Works’ chief of administration, said the two agencies are working together to prevent further water billing problems.

DPW recently implemented a new policy, Goldstein said, that before a new customer can obtain an occupancy permit, there must be proof provided to the department that a water consumption meter was installed. The department is also looking at having someone from the water meter office go on-site within a certain time frame to check and see whether it was properly installed. Meanwhile, a staff member from the billing department would make sure the meter number was entered into the billing system.

Council members said they appreciated the efforts the departments are taking, but said the work fell short because there are still too many unknown factors. The city has not yet said what, if any, fiscal impact the water billing problems might have, but city administrators previously told The Sun the Ritz-Carlton racked up a $2.3 million bill since 2007.

“It’s an embarrassment,” Scott said. “We are here because the city has not been able to do a basic service and if this administration can’t do basic services, then how can we expect them to do the large things like resolve crime in Baltimore?”

Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, the chairman of the oversight committee, expressed concerns over the city’s water partnership with Baltimore County and asked whether there were similar problems there. Goldstein said she didn’t know the answer but could look into it, but noted the issue was “complex.” She added the administration’s priority is focusing on the city audit.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat, asked about what the city plans to do for commercial or residential entities where ownership has changed. Goldstein said the administration is working with the law department to figure out who to bill in such cases.

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“This would certainly determine our likelihood to collect the money,” said Schleifer.

Democratic Councilwoman Danielle McCray asked when constituents with problem accounts could expect to receive a bill, and Burnett was concerned about how those who may owe large amounts could paying the money back. Goldstein said the department is also working with the law team on those issues, but the administration is considering only going back three years and allowing people to go on a payment plan.

Since being elected to the City Council in 2016, Democrat Zeke Cohen said he’s heard from 357 constituents about water billing issues and said his staff spends hours each week helping sort and solve complaints.

“I know that everyone is working hard, but it just hasn’t been good enough," the councilman said. “If DPW was a business, it would be a failing business.”

Goldstein and Day said they understood the council’s frustration but reminded them, “We all inherited this challenge together.”

“All I can do is admit to you that we’re trying,” Day said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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