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$5 million in back water bills recovered, mostly from residential users

The city continues to cut off overdue accounts in an effort to recover $40 million in back payments. The elephant in the room – how much does the city owe itself?

Above: A Baltimore city water valve cover.

The city has recovered $5 million in overdue water bill payments since it began a crackdown six weeks ago. But only $1 million is from commercial accounts, even though businesses are responsible for $15 million of the $40 million in back water and sewer charges.

The bulk of the money recovered has come from residential accounts, according to the Department of Public Works. The average overdue water bill for an account facing cutoff is between $500-600, the agency said.

Residential bills count for $15 million of back payments, while nonprofits and city government agencies are responsible for $10 million more.

The crackdown began on March 26 after the Bureau of Water and Wastewater sent out notices to about 21,000 delinquent accounts in the city and 4,000 accounts in Baltimore County.

DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said the agency had cut off service to 1,636 accounts over the first four weeks of the terminations, at a rate of about 400 a week.

“Many of those have already had their service restored after payment was made on the account,” Raymond said. “We restored 752 accounts in April that had previously been turned off.”

The city’s recent civil unrest did not slow down the service terminations, he added.

How Much Does City owe Itself?

DPW has kept mum about whether municipal accounts, some of which have not been paid for years, face cutoffs at the rate that residential accounts do.

One long-overdue water bill was recently brought to DPW’s attention by The Brew.

The bill for close to $17,000 for the service address 2601 Tolley Street – apparently a current or former rec center run by the Department of Recreation and Parks – does not appear to have ever been paid.

The address was eligible for cut-off, according to online records, but service remained active.

Last Friday, Kurt Kocher, a DPW spokesman, said the bill for that address had been paid, but he was not sure which agency was actually responsible for the payment.

“Finance pays those. They will sort it out,” he said, referring to the Department of Finance.

Another unpaid bill affiliated with the city is for 701 East Pratt Street, Pier 5. The $122,617.29 water bill has been unpaid since 2009.

The bill relates to water usage by the Coast Guard cutter Taney, docked at Pier 5, that Historic Ships in Baltimore operates as a tourist attraction.

Chris Rowsom, Historic Ships director, said the water bill came to the attention of his group “out of the blue,” and said he wasn’t sure it was their or the city’s responsibility.

“The account is still under review. We hope to have it resolved sooner rather than later,” Rowsom said.

On Friday, Kocher told The Brew that DPW was still working on “the Pratt Street situation.”

Today, spokesman Raymond said DPW would be setting up a meeting with the account holder within 10 days “to go over details.”

DPW Undergoing an Audit

Complaints about inaccurate water bills have dogged the Bureau of Water for years.

Incorrect and estimated billing, the agency says, is no longer a problem, although a number of accounts, including city-affiliated ones, remain under review, and overbilling is a common consumer complaint.

The DPW is undergoing a financial and performance audit under the city’s quadrennial audit program.

Whether the audit will include validating water bill accuracy or reviewing overdue water and sewer accounts has not been announced. The audit is expected to be completed this summer, according to Henry J. Raymond, director of the Finance Department.

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