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Water service but no water – and still 19 years of bills

Retiree pays a water bill for 19 years on a vacant lot with no water or meter.

water bills frances webb

There’s no house or water meter on the parcel Frances Webb owns next to her Northwest Baltimore house, but the city keeps sending her water bills for it.

Photo by: Fern Shen

For a glimpse into the Orwellian world of Baltimore City water billing, in the news since the release of a damning audit yesterday, consider the story of Frances E. Webb.

The 84-year-old former nurse tried for years to tell the city they shouldn’t be billing her for water service for the vacant lot she owns next to her Northwest Baltimore home.

There’s no structure on 3608 Wabash Ave. and no water meter – there’s just grass, a parking pad and a small dog yard. For a while, she had a swing set there.

But unable to stop the bills from coming after many frustrating phone calls with city officials, Webb has just been paying the charges – for 19 years.

Why does she pay for water she doesn’t use on a lot that’s without even a water meter?

Because she’s afraid of what would happen if she did not pay.

“I don’t want them to take my lot! You never know what the city will do!’” she said yesterday inside her tidy Ashburton home. (The quarterly bills for estimated usage clocked in at $7 and $10 when her aunt owned the property in the 1960s and her latest bill stands at $68.77.)

“It cracked me up, the bills show all this estimated usage – what usage?” Webb said.

Thousands of Overbilled Customers

In the wake of a critical report of its billing practices yesterday by the City Comptroller’s Office, the Bureau of Water and Wastewater admitted that it has overcharged 38,494 customer accounts $4.3 million over the last three years.

Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said the bureau would refund the overcharges. Credits should be showing up in customers’ current water bills, he said today.

Frances Webb has been paying the water bills on the empty lot "because I'm afraid they're going to take my property." (Photo by Fern Shen

Frances Webb has been paying the water bills on the empty lot "because I'm afraid they're going to take my property." (Photo by Fern Shen)

The bulk of the overcharges were in Baltimore City.

Nearly 22,000 accounts were overbilled by $3.39 million between July 2008 and June 2011.

The average overcharge was $158, according to figures provided by the agency.

In Baltimore County, 17,056 accounts were overbilled by $887,755, or $52 on average.

The audit, performed by City Auditor Robert L. McCarty, was critical of many practices by the water bureau – especially for not reimbursing customers for overbillings unless they filed complaints with the city.

According to McCarty, most of the overcharges occurred when the agency added, rather than deducted, so-called “true” meter readings on customer bills. These readings are performed when a meter is suspected to be improperly working, and a meter reader is sent out between regular readings.

Better Customer Service Promised

Another big problem cited by the report was the agency’s failure to adjust a customer’s bill when an estimated reading was too high. The audit found that 18,266 of the system’s 411,000 metered water accounts had been estimated for four consecutive quarters or longer.

Rudolph Chow, chief of the water bureau, said yesterday that “none of these findings are a surprise” and the agency is working hard to address the problems.

A first step is to add temporary clerks to the telephone call line so that customers don’t have long waits while inquiring about their water bills. His goal is to increase the number of personnel at the office from seven to 22.

Over the next few years, the city will install a wireless meter-reading system, which he said should correct many of the current billing problems. Chow said the department is now hobbled by a 30-plus-year-old “legacy system” that handles billing and other data.

Bills Continue Until Owner Pays Fee

The department’s explanation of the Webb case suggests that problems with water billing may be a bigger problem than the audit shows – and city officials acknowledge.

According to Kocher, Webb does have to pay these quarterly “minimum usage” charges because the property is still is on record as receiving service.

“It probably dates back to when there was a house there,” Kocher said. “There may be a pipe underground, what they call a ‘space pipe.’”

In an email, Kocher explained that “minimum usage charges apply even when there is no usage. . .that pays for the upkeep to the system which connects to that property.”

How do customers such as Webb cut their ties to ancient water usage and stop such bills from coming?

“She needs to write us and pay a $305 ‘abandonment of water supply service’ fee,” Kocher said.

Over many years of protesting the fee, Webb said no one ever told her or her aunt that they could stop the quarterly water bills by paying a fee.

“They just told me no, I have to pay it,” she said.

Kocher said the city is trying to do a better job of finding these  hidden pipes and erroneous service billings but they are understaffed and hoping to do better under new leadership.

“I think the attempt to find those in the past has not been diligent enough,” he said, “but our new system is going to really solve the problem.”

$19,370.44 Human Error

Webb did eventually find out about the abandonment of service process, but not until this last November when something really outrageous brought her down to the Abel Woman Building – a bill for $19,370.44 for 3608 Wabash.

“I said ‘They’re crazy,’” she recalled. “‘They’re out of their minds. There’s not even a water meter there.”

Webb called a local television station and complained, and the city adjusted the bill.

(Kocher said a meter on a different vacant lot with a $19,000 bill was accidentally “assigned” to Webb’s vacant lot. “It was human error,” he said.)

When Webb was downtown to discuss the $19,000 mistake, she said she was told by a “Mrs. Washington” that she could pay a $280 fee to have the service stopped. That didn’t make sense to her.

“They told me I could pay a fee and abandon the meter but how do I abandon a meter I never had?” she said, adding that the fee seemed high: “I’m on a fixed income.”

Webb said she may be contacting a lawyer and just won’t pay the latest bill. “I’ve had it.”

“Water Bill Woman” Explains

Longtime citizen water bill activist Linda Stewart, aka “WaterBillWoman” says the story illustrates several aspects of the problem she’s been agitating about for years.

“It happens a lot, especially with the elderly who will just pay without question,” Stewart said. “They don’t want to even make a phone call about it, they’re afraid of reprisals.”

Stewart has made a personal campaign out of tracking and publicizing examples of the city’s broken water billing system ever since her own bad experience – a year-and-a-half-long quest to get the city to adjust her water bill.

Since then, using city databases, she’s been tracking hundreds of water bills and believes that only an outside auditor can properly untangle the millions in over- and under-billings, phantom water meters and other problems she has identified.

“I don’t want to see it happen to others,” Stewart said. “People are losing their homes in tax sales and foreclosures. The city is wasting huge amounts of money.”

Stewart said today she’s feeling vindicated by the new audit, but is not satisfied from what she’s read so far about the city’s response.

“They are not going to fix this by simply putting in new water meters,” she said.

City Overbilling Itself?

It’s not hard to see why Stewart is skeptical. She has amassed a long list of seemingly egregious examples of mistaken billings and payments, and not just from hapless individuals.

Much of her research suggests that the city itself has been one of the biggest victims of erroneous billing – parking garages, shuttered schools, parks, vacant properties and public housing projects where bills have been sent and paid for water never used.

“The city is still paying a water bill for the Pennington Avenue Landfill (Bloody Pond) property, located at 1501 Aspen Street in Baltimore City, Maryland 21226. The landfill closed in May 1, 1981,” she wrote to David McClintock, Baltimore Inspector General, in a November 29 email.

“There is no reason why this property is still getting a water bill especially one that fluctuates,” she wrote. “Since August of 2007 that’s $134,859.58 down the drain, how much more was paid for the 26 years before August 2007???”

Kocher said Stewart has been “does not have a full picture but is just pulling off items that may or may not been billed. She has no idea what happens to many of these bills.” The school Stewart talks about, Highlandtown Middle School (which closed in 2006), is still paying water bills to maintain fire service, he said. (City schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster, noted that the Department of General Services is responsible for the building now.) 

In an interview with The Brew, Stewart said she believes the same mechanism that put the onus on Webb to detect and stop her erroneous billing is at work in these cases.

“Think of all the city-owned abandoned properties in Baltimore, the demolished structures, they’re billing themselves for all of that. Unless somebody does something about it, it stays on the books,” she said. “There are city parks where they’ve got four water fountains and the water bill is higher than the Marriott Waterfront.”

Stewart sent McClintock a number of examples, including her voluminous spreadsheet analyses.

In one of his email replies to Stewart, McClintock said the material she was providing was “troubling” and promised to look into it.

–Mark Reutter contributed to this story.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/MairZdoatz Mair

    Always wondered why, if water is ‘metered’, there are two different minimum payments for residential customers….one for 1/2 inch lines and a higher minimum for 3/4 inch lines. One would think that the diameter of a line shouldn’t make any difference with metered service. I did call and ask the water company about this a few years ago. Was told it was because…’that’s the way that it is’.
    Then there was the time they claimed they ‘shorted themselves’ on 50 days of service ‘through a billing error’. This was at least a neighborhood issue and we all had received and paid for four full billing periods. Many in my neighborhood are single seniors and pay ‘minimums’. Besides the fact it was an extra bill we were billed for a full period. Some phoned, some went to the office….to the best of my knowledge all were told same thing: ‘you can’t halve a minimum’. Know for a fact that’s what they told me. I suggested they divide by two but that went over like a lead balloon.And that’s only two instances. There are a million stories to be told in Water City.City has worn people out to the point where they are so tired they just quit trying. I guess that’s why they get away with so much.

  • Guest

    Someone should suggest Ms. Webb contact Legal Services to the Elderly for representation:
    Benjamin M. Grossman, Esquire
    Director, Legal Services to the Elderly
    410-396-1322

  • Unellu

    The Water Wars

    Auditors are people who come late,
    after the mistakes have been made–
    they are shadow dancers–
    behind the big stakes–
    they hold long strings–
    they tell us what was, what wasn’t–
    how it should have been–

    I imagine them unsmiling–
    mouths taut–attitude grim–
    foreheads furrowed–puzzling–
    over how life ever got to be
    the way they often find it–
    knots unspooling–
    from a ball of knots–
    in and out of pitfalls–
    then curling up as a cat would–
    a bag of bones on a sofa–
    that would be how, I suspect,
    auditors would find life–
    at best a mess–
    at worst–spent–
    and somnolent–

    life is where winners can be–
    the clueless–
    confabulating–
    cooks of books–
    and losers can be–
    their clued in enablers–
    going along to get along–
    yet punched in the face–
    by the careless fabrications–
    of the yarn spinners–
    “It could be worse,”
    they console themselves–the losers,
    “It could be much worse–
    hence it is best–
    mostly always best–
    for the clued in to accept
    what they cannot change
    and change only themselves.”

    In Baltimore where you pay a fee–
    to get water–
    and you pay a fee to get rid of bills–
    for the water you never got–
    (and never will)
    where you pay a fee
    to service a pipe you’ll never see–
    where you pay a fee to men–
    not at all surprised–
    that you paid a fee for years–
    for something you didn’t
    owe a fee for in the first place–
    or if you owed a fee–
    it was a smaller–much smaller fee–
    than the one you were charged–

    and the city paid–
    the same kind of fee you paid–
    from its coffers to its coffers–
    left hand–to right hand–
    its head bones–
    disconnected from its arm bones–
    its arm bones disconnected from its hand bones–
    its left bones disconnected from its right bones–
    the city– a bag of disarticulated bones–
    spent and somnolent–
    dreaming of opulence–
    gave itself a bonus–
    for what’s in the sea–
    what’s in the clouds–
    in the lakes and the rivers–
    in the snow and the rain–
    in blood, sweat and tears–
    for what should be free–
    now a commodity–
    neither clear nor clean–

    for what men once drank
    with cupped hands–
    from pitchers–
    filled from wells–
    fed by welling springs,
    the city charged itself a fee
    inadvertently–
    even where the water didn’t go–
    even where the water didn’t flow–
    the city charged everyone an exorbitant fee–
    and then discharged its responsibility–
    with a shrug of its shoulder–
    said it knew better–
    it would make it right–
    in time, the latest technology–
    in water meters–
    will work swimmingly–
    and all will be well with Baltimore–

    Cities are eternal–
    people are ephemeral–
    auditors are a special breed–
    they will come and go–
    as the referees of the water wars–
    to start in earnest–
    this century–
    cities versus cities–
    men versus women–
    children versus men–
    there will be blood baths–
    for what people–
    once drank with cupped hands freely–

    it will be worse–much worse–
    or it could be!

    Usha Nellore

     

  • Baltimoreplaces

    “Troubling” to say the least.  Much of what Ms. Stewart has pulled is outrageous.  It appears to be a scam, money laundering and theft by the city. 

    • Roger

      Are you serious? Do you really think the city is making a effort to intentionally screw people on their water bills.  It’s a antiquated system that needs  updating.  Frustrating yes. Criminal no.

      • Popeye D. Saylorman

        Criminal yes! The fact is they know the metering is wrong and they are still taking peoples money and over charging. Yes…it is a scam and criminal.

  • MC2012

    Good thing the Mayor and her staff are focused on priorities, like moving the Grand Prix forward!

  • Tom

    “Rudolph Chow, chief of the water bureau, said yesterday that “none of these findings are a surprise..” Okey-dokey; thank goodness nobody was surprised that the WHOLE FREAKING water bureau is an incompetent mess. 

  • Please Help

    I have been fighting with the city over an estimated water bill for a Caton rowhouse of $450 since August 2011.  Then received another estimated water bill of $450 and then another for $289 and the next for $80.00.  I requested a hearing in early December 2011 but have still not received a date for a hearing.  I am out ~$1K in less than a year for a small Canton house for two people. 

    I now make weekly trips to 200 Holiday Street get updates or lack of updates becausse no one at the water department answers the phone. 

    Does anyone have any advise?  Are there any lawyers out there that specialize in such issues with Baltimore City. 

  • Unellu

    Pleasehelp,
    This is scandalous–call your local TV stations–call Rudolph Chow who is probably chowing down all the complaints like they are tasty morsels.  He needs to be fired.  He is supposed to be working for the people and he seems to have forgotten that.  All the extra money collected, has it been accounted for?  Where was the money hiding?  Why are people being reimbursed a little at a time instead of having their extra charges returned to them lump sum?  How can citizens be certain that the incompetent water bureau has the amounts to be reimbursed, to each customer, right?  If a customer does not receive a statement as to the cumulative overcharges, there is no way a customer can figure if the overcharges have been returned over time.  Why should customers trust the water bureau especially when it the main player in this tragic tableau?  It is shocking that the leadership at the water bureau is not cringing or hiding somewhere remote, considering the seriousness of these charges–tells me that the bureau is quite in touch with the reality that the repercussions for this kind of lax oversight are negligible.  At the very top of the water bureau all’s right with the world.    

  • Marylandrents

    Everybody email the mayor. Her email address is on the city page. Although she doesn’t reapond personally. Someone will and they also will send a copy of email to water dept supervisor. I have had success with several issues by handling this way. And if your really pissed send cc a investigative reporter in the email and really draw some attention.
    Good luck.

  • Sasquatch99

    The feds should be investigating this. This wide spread of problem is nothing less then criminal.  If a company was doing this (ie.Blue Hippo) people would be going to jail.  If they are willing to have such massive fraud with the billing, how do we know that there is isn’t problems with the safety of the water?? All trust and faith is lost.

  • Barnadine the Pirate

    The water bills are a farce. I don’t know how they “estimate” bills, but it appears that they just draw numbers at random out of a hat. You would think that an “estimate” bill would have some correlation to an average bill, or the last non-estimated bill, or something. But no. I’ve gotten bills that are two and three times the prior period’s bill. Who “estimates” that I suddenly tripled the water use in my home? And the process for appeal a ridiculous water bill is Kafkaesque.

  • Unellu

    Sasquatch 99,
    You are right–this calls for the feds.  Will they come?  Is there incompetence here?  Yes.  Is there corruption?  Possibly.  Should there be an investigation?  No brainer.  Yes, there should be and immediately.  

  • ejd1984

    I’m going to keep a spreadsheet and record my meter’s number monthy, and start checking that against my bill.

    Read Your Water Meter
    http://www.h2ouse.org/resources/meter/index.cfm

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