The complaints have piled up: tales from city residents, churches and even the city’s own properties of vastly inflated water bills, glitches following the adoption of a new monthly billing system in 2016, and recent cries for more transparency and accountability from DPW as another three-year water rate hike is set to take effect. Now, Baltimore’s Department of Public Works says it will arrange for an independent review of its billing system.
DPW Director Rudy Chow announced this morning he’s “taking the necessary steps to commission an independent review of the Department’s Water Bureau customer billing operations,” the results of which will be made public.
In the announcement, DPW nodded to the recent community meetings it held to garner feedback from water customers ahead of the pending 30 percent rate hike from 2020 to 2022. “We spoke with a large number of customers during our community engagement meetings, and one message we heard is that we need to provide even more information to build confidence in our billing operations,” Chow said in a statement. “We need to demonstrate the bills we send to our customers meet or surpass industry standards. We always strive to be timely AND accurate.”
Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications and community affairs for DPW, said the independent review will focus on its billing processes, rather than dispute resolution. He said it’ll be helpful to have two years worth of data on the BaltiMeter billing system.
“We want to have a better sense for our customers that their money is going to the right places, and the bills are as accurate as they can be,” he said.
The announcement follows a recent call from Baltimore City Council members for more transparency from DPW about the financial calculus behind the rate hikes. DPW did release a short version of a study used to justify rising water and sewer rates, but only after the city’s spending board approved them, and at least one lawmaker, Councilman Zeke Cohen, lamented that the study was only shared in an abbreviated form.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has proposed legislation that would scale water bills to income for the city’s lowest-earning households, in the vein of what Philadelphia has implemented. It would also create a new Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals to resolve billing disputes—operating independently of DPW— and an oversight committee for the agency, comprised of DPW’s director, the city council president, three other council members, the city auditor and Baltimore’s inspector general.
Young’s office has not responded to a request for comment on DPW’s announcement.
Water-rights advocates told Baltimore Fishbowl the study is a solid “first step,” while still highlighting a need for a third party to handle complaints, as well as an end to the controversial practice of water lien tax sales. Young’s bill would tackle the first of those issues, and legislation sponsored by Del. Nick Mosby (40th District) and Sen. Mary Washington (43rd District), would prevent the city from selling residents’ homes at tax sale due to unpaid water bill debt, strengthening protections for customers created in Annapolis last year.
Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for Food and Water Watch Maryland, said DPW should get a completely independent third party to conduct the review, release its findings to the public and follow any resulting recommendations to fix its billing process. “Short of those three things, I don’t think it will produce that much change,” she said.
Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice, a group in the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, said the study is “something that the department should be doing, certainly, and we applaud that, but it’s not actively making change in a situation where people are in crisis. It’s looking to affirm what we already know”—that customers regularly suffer billing errors. (Amster said she’s received erroneous bills for $1,700, $800 and $400 in the past, followed by one for just $43 after not receiving any bills in the mail for months.)
Eckel said she attended two of DPW’s recent community meetings, and at both of them she observed an “overwhelming” number of attendees voicing complaints about inaccurate bills.
Raymond said getting an independent party to review billing processes will “make sure that we’re doing everything that we need to be doing.”
Eckel added that she hopes DPW understands public trust in the agency “is a really important piece of the system working, and they have to do a lot of work in order to get there.”
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