After learning the luxury Ritz-Carlton Residences at the foot of Federal Hill had not been billed for water service in years, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young today is calling for a comprehensive audit of the system run by the Department of Public Works.
News of the billing error came to light earlier today in a story by WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller, who reported the condominium development recently received a bill–its first in more than a decade, despite repeated attempts by the community’s board to pay for water.
James Bentley II, a spokesperson for the mayor, confirmed the estimated bill was for $2.3 million.
In a release, Young said he learned of the discrepancy in mid-October and immediately asked for the matter to be investigated. His office learned the complex had not been billed since a meter was installed in 2007.
“I was outraged to learn of this major oversight in water billing as it relates to the Ritz Carlton,” Young said in a statement. “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.”
Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for operations, will lead the inquiry for other billing irregularities, comparing permits, property records and account information.
DPW’s director of nearly six years, Rudy Chow, is on his way out. The mayor’s office announced his departure in a terse release last week. He’ll leave his post with the city–and his $188,000 salary–at the start of February 2020.
Young’s call for an audit comes the same day the city’s Board of Estimates, of which he is a member, deferred on renewing a contract with Itineris, a Georgia-based company that administers billing for municipal utilities.
Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) on Tuesday called upon the city’s spending board to delay voting on the item, a nearly $5.5 million expense, after the city’s auditor did not deliver a scheduled financial audit of the agency on Oct. 16, as originally planned.
Henry, a 2020 candidate for city comptroller, said in a publicly shared letter that “Itineris’ contract renewal is a serious decision that should be made with all available information. Residents of Baltimore are well aware of the multitude of issues related to the implementation of our water billing system.”
The councilman said if the contract extension had been approved this morning, the total amount spent on Itineris’ billing services would amount to nearly $27 million, well over the initial $8.4 million contract approved in October 2014.
Council President Brandon Scott obliged Henry’s request to delay a vote on the approval, for which Henry thanked him this morning, writing in a Facebook post, “I’m thankful for his leadership on this issue and look forward to having the Board of Estimates consider the Itineras [sic.] extension with the benefit of whatever additional information we learn from the audit.”
Scott’s communications director, Stefanie Mavronis, told Baltimore Fishbowl the council president asked the city auditor about the status of the review when the Board of Estimates met last week.
When proper administration of water bills does happen, it’s proven to be problematic for some. Churches and residents alike have complained for years of billing errors, with erroneous charges at the times in the thousands.
DPW announced 10 months ago that it would order an independent review of its billing process.
“We need to demonstrate the bills we send to our customers meet or surpass industry standards,” Chow said at the time. “We always strive to be timely AND accurate.”
This story has been updated.