City Residents Decry Erratic Water Bills
Linda Stewart wants answers, and she's starting to think she's onto something big.
Stewart owns--for now--the Gaslight Tavern on the 4900 block of Curtis Avenue in Curtis Bay. It's an industrial zone in one of the lowest-lying parts of Baltimore City, and for years Stewart has puzzled over seemingly random water bills at the business and two small houses she owns on or near the block. With normal usage hovering around $300 each quarter, last year she says she paid over $1,400 for just three months' water to the three properties; this year she saw the bar go to tax sale for yet another huge, seemingly impossible bill.
Stewart says she plans to pay off her bar's tax sale bill within a few months, and expects to pay about $2,500 to keep her property. Looking for answers, last summer she started checking her neighbors' water bills online, and made a discovery. "It's not just me," Stewart says.
Over several months, using the database published by the city's Department of Public Works that allows anyone to look up a water bill by typing in an address, Stewart created a series of spreadsheets. The spreadsheets show wildly fluctuating bills on hundreds of city addresses.
"What started this here, she was trying to look up locations in Curtis Bay that are comparable to the bar," says Stewart's husband, Terry, a wiry man with a ruddy complexion. She typed 1601 Hazel St. into the city database, thinking it was a bar. She was shocked to see the address had a $9,000 water bill, and then shocked again later when she discovered that the bill was not for a tavern at all but for a drinking fountain in a public park.
The kicker: "That fountain never worked," says Terry Stewart.
The current balance on the fountain's address is $240.99, according to the waterworks web site.
In a March story The Sun said some 750 city properties were sold in tax sales last year because of small debts such as water bills. The newspaper noted that a property can go to tax sale for a delinquent bill as small as $100, a figure that often increases by orders of magnitude because of nebulous attorney's fees charged by the few companies that buy the right to collect the bills. But the Sun's report did not examine whether the delinquent water bills were themselves justified. Stewart says in many cases they aren't--and other Baltimore property owners say the same.
"There were three people just on my street" with excessive bills, 10th District Councilman Edward Reisinger says after a recent City Council meeting. Reisinger was going to conduct an informational hearing on the matter, but he pulled his proposed bill because another council member, Bernard "Jack" Young of the 12th District, already had a similar bill "in the hopper." Reisinger says he helped his constituents get their bills reduced and suggests the problem may be much more widespread. An unscientific poll conducted by a City Paper reporter found several people who claimed their water bills varied wildly despite no change in usage. One property investor who called the newspaper to complain about other matters several months ago added an aside: "I have some humongous water bills," he said. "All bullshit. I'm fighting the city on it."
In a phone interview the investor, Sanford Kreisler of Manassas, Va., details some of his water woes. "2907 [Keyworth Ave.] was a vacant building, and all of a sudden I get a $3,900 water bill," he says. "There's water in the basement. . . . I asked for hearings on it. I never could get a hearing; they'd say, `Well you faxed it to the wrong desk.'"
Kreisler, who says his ownership of several dozen rowhouses and a number of vacant lots is currently protected by a bankruptcy filing, says he's found it impossible to get the Department of Public Works to shut off or suspend service to his vacant properties. In some cases, Kreisler says he personally has shut off the water at the meter. But the bills keep coming. He says even vacant lots get water bills.
"Here's one, 3904 Park Heights Ave., they tore the house down. . . . I got a $613 bill for water." He goes on: "1538 N. Wolfe [St.], that's a vacant lot, and I pay a water bill on it-- $138." (The waterworks web site shows no bill at 3904 Park Heights and a current balance of $341.16 at 1538 N. Wolfe.)
"Here's another one, $5,000," Kreisler says. "1109 Darley [Ave.] . . . it's been empty for four years. Right now the water's off. That's one of them I turned off; I'm still getting bills. Nobody goes out to read the meter." The waterworks web site claims the meter there was last read on March 29, for a bill of $213.59. The balance due is $8,274.07.
Stewart says her most compelling evidence comes from the bills she's examined on the city's web site. She has hundreds of addresses with questionable bills. She points out a small apartment building nearby on Cypress Street that got an $818 bill one quarter and a $36,400 bill the next. (The current balance is $42.69, according to the waterworks web site.)
She even checked Gov. Martin O'Malley's old address. One bill came in at $54.34; the next totaled $505.81. Both were paid in full.
There's not much choice, Stewart says. "I called John Brewer," she says. Brewer is the division chief for revenue measurement--basically the water bill man at the Department of Public Works. "He didn't want to hear anything. He said `You don't want your house to go to tax sale.' So I hung up the phone and immediately paid all three bills."
Brewer says most complainers, such as Stewart and Kreisler, are just wrong. In Kreisler's case, Brewer says, property owners are billed the minimum charge as long as the water meter is in the ground--regardless of whether there is a house on the lot. "If he wants to abandon his service, he must come in and pay the $225 fee to abandon the service," he says. "Then it will discontinue." Brewer says Kreisler's Darley Avenue bill is so high because Kreisler hasn't paid anything on the account, which has been delinquent since at least 2000. "It's definitely not an overbilling in this situation," he says.
Brewer says his department bills accurately 99.7 percent of the time. "We're bound to have a few mistakes," he says. "We mail 1.6 million bills per year."
Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher sounds impatient when told of Stewart's troubles. "There's a process you can get a one-time credit if there's a leak and you get a big water bill," he explains. He says Stewart probably has a leak she didn't fix. "I get annoyed when people complain but they didn't call anyone," he says.
Stewart called--repeatedly--and got nowhere. "I called and they raised my water bill up even more," she says.
Baltimore's water and sewer rates are set by a complicated formula, beginning with a flat charge that increases with the size of the pipes. The minimum charge for water use is $21.78 per quarter, which includes 7,480 gallons; in addition, the minimum sewer charge is $29.28. Together, the minimum bill is $51.06--a number Stewart found to be common among many of the bills she examined online. Water-use charges are given in "units" of 748 gallons, according to Brewer. The per-unit price for the first 50 units is $2.178; the price drops as more water is used. Water usage rates were scheduled to increase by about 9 percent per year, beginning in 2005, but the first two increases were deferred. A 9 percent increase went into effect in April of this year.
Councilman Young, who has been waiting for weeks for a response from Public Works so that he can schedule his planned public hearing on the water billing problem, sounds even more impatient with the city's water bureaucracy. "They always say it's a leak. Everybody's house ain't leaking," he says.
Driven by a steady stream of calls from constituents whose homes fall to tax sales, Young has been interested in the water bill issue "a long time," he says. But "this is the first time I went after looking to see if they're accurate. See if they're correct. How could a person's bill be $80, consistently for four quarters, then all of a sudden it's $600? Something's wrong."
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