Ahead of a hearing on water bills, City Council President Brandon Scott sent a letter to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young asking for details about a reported 800 residential and commercial properties the city flagged to investigate if they are properly paying for the utility.
Of those, 240 addresses may never have been billed by the city, The Sun reported on Monday. Another 310 have accounts but may not have been properly billed, and 215 others stopped receiving bills after the city switched to a new billing system in 2016.
About 60 percent of the flagged addresses are linked to commercial properties, Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for operations, told the paper. She said she hopes to have the audit completed by May.
In the letter, Scott asked for a list of the 800 addresses, communications from the city to those locations and an assurance the city will not attempt to collect payment from residents who either received erroneous bills or none at all.
The letter comes one day before the council’s Legislative Investigations Committee, chaired by Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (8th District), is scheduled to hold a hearing “on the administration’s failure to send water bills to scores of commercial and residential water customers,” as Scott’s office put it.
Scott, in a statement, said he has not received answers to questions he first sent to the mayor’s office when the hearing was called for one month ago. Those asked for the overall amount of revenue lost by the city, the number of commercial properties that self-reported not receiving a bill and fixes to the water billing system.
“We are going to ask very specific questions in tomorrow’s hearing regarding this audit to shed light on how our city ended up in this position to begin with, and how we will avoid it in the future,” Scott said. “This is about more than a failed water billing system. This is about basic transparency and accountability in our government.”
Young’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl.
The mayor last October called for the audit of the city’s water billing system after a story by WBAL’s Jayne Miller revealed the luxury Ritz-Carlton Residences at the foot of Federal Hill had not been billed for water service in years, costing the city an estimated $2.3 million. The community’s board said they had repeatedly asked the city for a bill.
Young learned of the Ritz’s missing water bills a few weeks before the WBAL story came out, his office said at the time, and immediately ordered an investigation. That inquiry determined the condo complex had not been billed since 2007, following the installation of a new meter.
He then tapped Goldstein to conduct a full audit of the city’s water billing system using permits, property records and account information.
“I was outraged to learn of this major oversight in water billing as it relates to the Ritz Carlton,” Young said in a statement at the time. “To think that previous administrations allowed residents’ properties to be sent to tax sale while not even billing the city’s wealthiest is absolutely shameful. Essential to good government is thoroughness in both audits and oversight and that clearly was not the case here.”
Before the Ritz Carlton news became public, Young announced Rudy Chow, the Department of Public Works director, was retiring in February 2020 after more than six years with the agency.
The water billing system has proven to be a thorn in the side of the city for years. Churches and residents alike have complained for years about errors in what they’ve been charged, sometimes being overbilled by thousands of dollars. All the while, DPW has raised rates in order to help pay for federally mandated repairs to overhaul water and sewer infrastructure.
Last November, the council passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act–a measure Young proposed when he was council president–tying water rates to income and creating an independent office for challenging billing disputes.
Young signed it into law in January. Scott wrote today those initiatives will be implemented starting in April.
Both Young and Scott are running to be elected as mayor of the city in the upcoming primary election scheduled for April 28.
Tomorrow’s hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. in the Clarence “Du” Burns Council Chamber at City Hall. It will air live on Charm TV and be streamed on Scott’s official Facebook page.
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