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Quick and Dirty

Payback, But Not Redemption

Woman Who Says City Overcharged Her For Water to Get Refund

Frank Klein
Linda Stewart

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 7/9/2008

Linda Stewart is getting her money back--most of it at least--but she's still not satisfied.

"As you know, it went to tax sale," Stewart says of her Curtis Bay bar, the Gaslight Tavern, which with two small houses suddenly racked up $1,400 in water bills two years ago after decades of bills in the $300 range ("Water Weight," Mobtown Beat, June 13, 2007). "I waited till the last possible day [to redeem the property], paid about $3,000. I was hoping someone would see the light and realize the bills were wrong."

Although Stewart is getting at least $2,400 back from the city after a May hearing--and although she may get another $1,000 or so after that--the city is not conceding that Stewart's bills were wrong.

"We're trying to be as customer friendly as we possibly can be," says Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. Although 3,107 city water bills were reduced last year, by a total of $648,000, "an awful lot of this does fall on the consumer. [They say], `I didn't know that I had a leak in my basement toilet for six months, because I don't go down there and use it.' There's an awful lot of that. We make adjustments for a lot of that when it's not the city's fault."

Kocher and John Brewer, the division chief for revenue measurement, say the error rate on city water bills is less than 0.2 percent, and that the city's system for correcting those mistakes has reduced the error rate every year. Yes, Kocher admits, four meter readers were fired last summer after it was found that they had falsified water-meter readings, but the overall system was good even then, and is better now.

And therein lies the dispute. Stewart has made a hobby, maybe an obsession, of checking water bills on-line for crazy fluctuations. She's found a lot--all the proof needed, she says, to show that the city has a systematic problem. Each year hundreds of city properties are sold in tax sales because of unpaid water bills. Legislation in both the state legislature and the City Council that would have stopped the practice failed last year amid opposition from the city's Department of Public Works and Department of Finance. The council did pass an ordinance allowing for delinquent water bills to be paid over time (Councilmania, March 9).

Stewart says she is waiting to see a written report the water department promised after a City Council hearing last August on the fluctuating bills. "Nothing came of it," she says. "They're not talking to me one iota about anything anymore."

But Brewer says there was no call at the hearing for a written report, only a request from City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young that the department investigate the circumstances surrounding the nine complaints aired at the hearing. "Eight were unfounded," Brewer says, and none of Stewart's cases was investigated.

"It's just amazing," Stewart says, "that they can keep on doing this and thinking it's OK."

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