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Baltimore union decries outsourcing of water billing operations, employee layoffs

William Milburn found out he was losing his job by reading the news. The nearly 20-year veteran of the Department of Public Works said it felt like a “stab in the back” to learn Baltimore plans to outsource its water billing operations to a private company and lay off dozens of its employees.

Members of the City Union of Baltimore gathered Wednesday in front of City Hall to condemn the plan and criticize the company set to take over.

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Workers “will not be quiet as the mayor and his administration scapegoat hardworking employees for questionable, no-bid contracts and increase the number of Baltimoreans without a job in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic,” said union president Antoinette Ryan-Johnson.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced via an emailed news release last week that Baltimore intends to hire Itron Inc. to take over meter reading, small meter installation and maintenance in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

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The outsourcing will save the city money and is a necessary step after years of dysfunction in the water billing system, Young’s administration said.

Residents regularly report being outrageously overcharged, while some businesses have gone years without paying a bill.

Public Works Director Matthew Garbark said many of the current problems are tied to human error. He said the city’s crew of meter technicians struggled to transition to operating automated meters, which were purchased from Itron several years ago. The company’s workers, he said, are experts in the technology.

Ryan-Johnson said the department was demonizing its own employees, while directing more money toward the company responsible for the problems it’s currently facing.

Itron representatives did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, joined the union in front of City Hall Wednesday.

“We all know that we need water system reform here in Baltimore, but we cannot act like these employees should bear the brunt of a system that has needed reform longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “Privatization is not the answer.”

A charter amendment, passed by City Council and approved by voters in 2018, banned the sale of the city water system. Scott said he’s asked the council’s general counsel to investigate whether the Itron deal is legal under the current law.

The contract still must be voted on by the five-member Board of Estimates, which Scott chairs. But the mayor controls three of the votes: his own, plus two of his appointees.

Advocates criticized Young, who will only be mayor for a few more months, for pushing forward on a deal with such long-lasting implications. Both Scott and the incoming comptroller, Councilman Bill Henry, have spoken out against it.

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