Nearly $8 million in unpaid water bills is owed to Baltimore City by the housing authority that manages 7,000 low-income public housing units in the city.
The findings come from a report issued today by Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, who also notes that, as of May 2023, there are 186,350 delinquent water accounts – most from individual homeowners – with $319 million collectively owed to Baltimore City.
The synopsis report, which focuses on unpaid water bills by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), underscores once again poor financial management by the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which operates the region’s water and sewer system.
In 2020, Brandon Scott campaigned for mayor on the platform of fixing the city’s “busted” water billing system and has since proclaimed significant progress made by updating outmoded systems.
“When I became mayor of this great city, I made a commitment to do what was necessary to modernize operations and improve services and supports for our residents,” Scott said last January while promoting a “paperless” water billing option.
The mayor’s office received the IG’s full investigative report, but has not commented on its contents.
Janet Abrahams, president and CEO of the housing authority, today asked The Brew for a copy of the report through a spokesperson, indicating she had not seen it.
UPDATE: The following statement, released by HABC spokesperson Ingrid Antonio, says the agency will work with DPW to “correct any erroneous past-due balances.”
“It is important to know that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) has always and continues to pay the Department of Public Works (DPW) for water services.
“HABC also agrees with the suggestions of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for DPW to avoid confusion regarding amounts due. HABC consistently works with DPW to verify bills, which includes credits and debits. We will continue work with DPW to correct any erroneous past-due balances.”
The report indicates that despite $130 million spent over the last decade on “smart” meters, high-tech equipment and pricey consultants, water billing in Baltimore is still in disarray.
Much of the blame, as previously reported by The Brew, stems from efforts by former DPW Director Rudy Chow to rush the UMAX water billing system into service.
Many water accounts did not properly migrate over to the UMAX system, resulting in commercial properties, including high-end waterfront condos and large nonprofit institutions, not being properly billed for water consumption.
Examining a complaint about the billing at four HABC developments, the IG found that three of them collectively owed the city $603,000, while the fourth was listed as “paid.”
The latter result, Cumming reported, stemmed from a deal last February between DPW and the Housing Authority in which HABC “agreed to pay $764,000, and the city would cancel the remainder of the $2,575,669 bill.”
The report identified 207 HABC accounts with past-due billing backlogs of $11,790,697, considerably more than the $7,869,019 the agency appears to currently owe.
Cumming said the Housing Authority, whose operating costs are underwritten by the federal government, has been paying past-due bills, but not in the full amounts.
“A glitch occurred”
In 52 of 70 housing accounts sampled by the IG, the UMAX billing system said it received at least partial payments in 2023.
But those same payments were not reflected on the Department of Finance’s water billing portal.
UMAX, for example, showed that three of the accounts had credits of $2,229,793, $211,351 and $2,228,982, whereas the Department of Finance portal showed amounts due of $711, $172,467 and $1,522, respectively.
“When asked if discrepancies between the UMAX and the Finance portal had occurred, the DPW supervisor stated a glitch occurred,” the report said.
But the IG was assured that the department and Itineris, its Atlanta-based consultants, “had resolved the issue.”
DPW Interim Director Richard Luna, who took over from departing Jason Mitchell two month ago, did not dispute the IG’s findings.
He said the agency is taking steps to actively engage with HABC and resolve the billing problems by the end of 2023.
In a written response to the report, Luna noted:
“DPW has arranged an internal meeting for September 12 [today], with the aim of delving into the variances between UMAX and the publicly available data in the Department of Finance’s payment system.”
“DPW believes this is attributed to unallocated sub-credits in UMAX,” he continued. “However, as part of our commitment to thoroughly investigate the findings, DPW will involve both BCIT and Itineris, DPW’s billing support vendor, to conduct an in-depth examination of the discrepancies identified in this report.”