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The Dripby Fern Shen8:08 pmApr 8, 20160

April 20 hearing scheduled on city water bill problems

City Council also gives preliminary approval to bills that would strip the mayor’s budget power, change the structure of the Board of Estimates

Above: At an upcoming hearing, citizens will be able to sound off about water billing issues – and get city staffers to address their particular problems. (Fern Shen)

With Baltimore residents still reporting inaccurate – and in many cases dramatically increased – water bills, the City Council has scheduled a hearing on April 20 at 4 p.m. to examine the problem.

“We have people getting bills for thousands of dollars and they don’t understand why,” Councilman James B. Kraft said at last night’s Council meeting.

Kraft, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, will chair the hearing that is to take place at City Hall.

Kraft’s office announced details of the hearing today.

In other action last night, the Council gave preliminary approval to a package of legislation that would dramatically reduce the mayor’s power over financial matters.

One measure, which received a 12-1 vote, would take away the mayor’s control over the Board of Estimates.

That powerful five-member spending board is currently composed of the City Council President, City Comptroller, the Mayor and two mayoral designees.

The proposed charter amendment would remove the two mayor-controlled positions (City Solicitor and Public Works Director) from the board, taking away the mayor’s built-in voting majority.

The other measure, which the Council advanced unanimously last night, would give members the power to add spending items to the budget. (The Council is currently only empowered to cut the mayor’s proposed budget.)

Councilman Bill Henry said the $4.2 million cut in funding for after-school and community school programs in the mayor’s FY2017 budget, which drew opposition from some Council members and a host of community groups recently, points up the need for the change.

A third measure would change the structure of the Council, replacing the current 14 single-member districts with seven two-member districts.

All three measures, if they receive final Council approval and survive any mayoral veto, would have to be approved by the voters as amendments to the city charter next November.

Got a Problem? Bring Your Paperwork!

Details on the water bill hearing will interest citizens with individual billing issues as well as those who want to speak out generally.

According to Kraft’s chief of staff Emily Sherman, the committee will hear testimony from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. from city officials, answering questions about the status of the error-plagued billing system.

Inaccurate water bills have prompted complaints in Baltimore for years, with citizens reporting they are being over-charged, while some large commercial or municipal customers get  unusually low bills.

The Brew reported last year on one customer in a typical Baltimore rowhouse who, inexplicably, received a quarterly bill of more than $65,000.

City officials promised that the new wireless water-metering system will provide more reliable readings and prevent erroneous billings.

Adding to the confusion for customers are a series of rate increases city officials say are needed in part to keep up with infrastructure repair needs.

Water bill charges have more than tripled in the 14 years years since Baltimore signed a federal consent decree to repair its aging, leaking sewer system.

Residents who wish to testify about the issue at the hearing may do so, Sherman said. But those who want to talk about their own water bill problem will be directed to the conference room.

“If they want to talk about their particular bill, there will be employees with computers in the Curran Room who can look up their bill and help them,” Sherman said.

“We will stay as long as we’re needed,” she added

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