When Baltimore bought digital water meters at a cost of more than $80 million, the devices were hailed as the solution to the city’s long history of water billing problems.
The old system, bedeviled by human error, sometimes sent customers bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the new digital system — which sends readings directly to city managers — would be the answer to those problems.
Instead, the high-tech system purchased in 2013 to serve customers in the city and Baltimore County has been plagued by its own serious problems.
Meters are frequently broken, delivering no readings. When that happens, customers can go months without bills for water usage — resulting in the loss of millions of dollars of needed revenue.
A joint report from the Baltimore City and Baltimore County inspectors general in December found 8,650 open repair requests for water meter problems in the county alone — 95% of them unresolved for more than a year.
An additional 14,000 meters in the city were malfunctioning at the time, for a total of more than 22,000 broken meters. Many were providing readings of zero water consumption, the inspectors general said.
Those zero consumption meters meant customers had been paying nothing for months for water use, while others among the system’s 400,000 customers have paid ever higher water rates to finance costly infrastructure repairs.
“These open tickets are a form of waste in that they directly translate into millions of dollars in unbilled or under-billed water and sewer fees for both the city and the county,” the inspectors general wrote in their report.
Today, officials at the Baltimore Department of Public Works contend they’ve caught up on fixing many of those malfunctioning meters, but they could not provide an exact figure for how many are still broken.
Baltimore County officials say 6,300 repair requests there still need to be addressed by the system’s city workers. And as recently as April, more than 1,800 customers in the city or county got no bill at all, city officials acknowledge.
There’s been finger-pointing over who’s responsible for problems with the water meters installed eight years ago by West Coast utility company Itron Inc. The contract calls for Itron to provide software support for the system, but city employees are responsible for repairing the meters.
The union for Baltimore’s meter shop employees says Itron’s equipment is the chief source of problems. Itron denies that, and notes that other cities use the same meters and have not experienced similar malfunction.
It is clear that Baltimore’s problems were compounded by the pandemic, when most of the city’s 63 meter shop employees were paid to stay home for months rather than read and repair the outdoor meters. But the system’s dysfunction surfaced well before that.
Mayor Brandon Scott, who took office in December, said he’s reluctant to criticize previous administrations, but he has cited lack of training among the city employees who repair meters as a cause of the ongoing problems. Scott’s spokeswoman said he has instituted training for the employees, most of whom returned to work in April.
Underbilling or not billing customers results in significant revenue loss for the water system. Bills are subject to many variables, including household size and whether the customer is residential or commercial, but for a city residential customer, the average monthly bill based on actual water usage is roughly $190.
If the system’s 22,000 customers with broken meters as the year began owed roughly that amount, the system would have lost more than $4 million a month for every month the meters went without repair.
‘For whatever reason,’ it’s broken
The installation of Baltimore’s new meter technology was a massive investment. The city signed an $83 million deal with Itron in 2013 for the multiyear project, which included $2.1 million for the company to support and maintain the meters for 20 years. An additional $400,000 contract was signed in 2015 for parts and accessories, a contract that has been renewed twice at the same cost.
Itron, which has installed similar smart meter technology in Philadelphia, Houston and Ottawa, won the Baltimore contract over one competing bidder.
Locally, new meters were installed for most customers, housed in the same underground concrete vaults that held the previous devices. Electronic transmitters known as ERTs were attached so the meters could send usage information directly to the city.
In Baltimore County, readings are not sent directly. Instead, employees of the city’s meter shop drive around to various neighborhoods to collect the readings via a wireless computer system.
Installation was completed by late 2016, but just a few years later, problems are abundant. The ERTs have not been working for a host of reasons, according to the inspectors general report. Wires connecting the ERTs to the meters have come loose or disconnected. Other times, the ERTs fall into the vaults due to “faulty clips,” making it impossible for them to send a reading. In other instances, synthetic lids that Itron was responsible for putting on the vaults were never installed. Old cast iron lids block the digital readings, according to the report.
While Itron was responsible for installing some of the components that are malfunctioning, deputy director of Public Works Matthew Garbark told the City Council in March he believed there’s responsibility on both sides.
Under the terms of its contract, Itron provides software support for the system that allows the ERTs to communicate with the billing system. The company also maintains the receivers and repeaters, which collect the readings from the meters. But the meters themselves are installed and repaired by city employees.
“For whatever reason, [when] we have sent techs out, they have not properly handled the equipment and caused it to not work properly,” Garbark said. There are other problems, he said, where “we believe the vendor may have done it.”
But overall, he told the council, “Nothing we have points directly at Itron as not having lived up directly to their contract.”
The City Union of Baltimore, which represents Baltimore’s meter shop employees, said Itron deserves the blame. President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson said meter technicians have run into ERTs that won’t pick up a signal during programming. Some of the devices read zero during checks when water is running inside a home, she said.
The transmitters have a tendency to fall into the meter vaults, which are often flooded, disabling readings, she said. Meter technicians also have run into problems with equipment that was installed backward by Itron or subcontractors, Ryan-Johnson said. Readings on those meters start at 9,999 and count down to zero, she said.
City Solicitor Jim Shea is reviewing the city’s contract with Itron for potential violations at the request of City Council President Nick Mosby. Mosby asked for the review in January as the city’s spending board, which he chairs, was asked to renew a maintenance contract with the company.
“Our city’s been sold solution after solution to these persistent water billing problems, one of the latest and most expensive being the installation of digital meters,” said Mosby, a Democrat. “We have got to see what potential the city has in recouping some of these costs.”
Alison Mallahan, a spokeswoman for Itron, said the company “fulfilled its meter installation contract with the city of Baltimore, coming in under budget and completing installation ahead of schedule.”
“Our communication modules are proven and reliable. We have deployed more than 20 million Itron water communications modules … across North America,” said Mallahan, noting that figure includes 8 million of the same type installed in Baltimore.
Scott, the latest in a long line of mayors to inherit water billing problems, has pointed to the lack of training among meter shop employees. His predecessor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, announced a plan in October to lay off the staff of the shop and outsource the work to Itron. Young, however, never followed through. When Scott took office two months later, he announced that he would retrain the employees instead.
Most of those employees were not at work for much of 2020. All but 18 were sent home on paid leave for the majority of the coronavirus pandemic, and only 11 of the employees who remained on the job had training to handle meter-related tasks, according to the inspectors general report.
The workers’ absence exacerbated the system’s problems. With no city employees at work to read its meters, Baltimore County signed a separate contract with Itron for more than $780,000 to complete the readings there.
Meters in the city continued to transmit readings to Baltimore’s billing system. But the work of fixing the meters that were broken piled up with few techs on the job.
As of January, only 50% of meter shop employees had returned to work, city officials said. In April, 19 employees were still on paid leave. All had finally returned last month.
Asked why the employees were not considered essential during the pandemic, Stefanie Mavronis, Scott’s spokeswoman, said the initial decision to take the workers off the job was made last year by the Young administration.
Scott’s plan to address billing problems begins with the meter shop, aides said. He and his staff have likened the meters to a cash register for the entire system. If they aren’t reading correctly, “everything else from that point down is going to be an error,” Garbark said recently.
Mavronis said the meter shop is creating a quality assurance team that will monitor “problematic locations” to investigate the “difference between defective equipment and [human] error.” A city employee has been stationed at the meter shop to monitor the automated collection system for readings on a daily basis, she said.
A team of staff from the city administrator’s office and the Department of Public Works has met with supervisors and continues to meet with each meter shop employee to assess training needs, Mavronis said. Employees are being trained to use new equipment, and they are shadowing Itron workers “to get a refresh of all reading equipment.”
Asked why employees were not better trained to repair the equipment before now, Mavronis again said the mayor’s office could not speak to decisions made by previous administrations.
Is a big bill coming?
Are customers whose meters have been broken likely to see bills eventually for past water use? In some cases, yes.
Often, customers with meters that read zero still get partial bills that cover other fees related to the system, including for system maintenance and infrastructure work. But those bills include no charge for actual water and sewer usage.
Such incomplete bills can mean one of two things. In instances where a meter is broken and reading zero, there is no record for the city to rely upon to bill a customer retroactively, Mavronis said.
That revenue is lost to the city, she said.
However, some customers have meters that are recording usage, but not properly transmitting that reading to the city. When those types of malfunctions are discovered, a customer can be billed retroactively, Mavronis said.
Baltimore officials will work with those customers to develop payment plans with “reasonable terms,” she said.
Through a spokesman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he has faith in Scott’s “renewed efforts” to address persistent concerns with the water system. But all “productive paths forward” for the system should be considered, spokesman Sean Naron said. He said that could include exploring the possibility of a regional water authority, which would be governed by an independent board that includes representatives from the various jurisdictions using the system.
“Every resident deserves to have service delivered in an efficient manner, and we share in their frustrations,” Naron said.
Scott said he’s “confident in the reform efforts underway at DPW” and said he’s committed to improving the water system. That work will take time, he cautioned.
“My administration made a strategic decision to invest in training and leadership development rather than lay off meter shop workers, most of whom are Baltimore City residents,” Scott said.
“True reform requires diligence, and fortunately progress is already happening.”