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Baltimore City Outsources Water Meter Reading Operations Amid Sustained Billing Struggles

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Baltimore will outsource water meter reading operations to the same third-party vendor that installed water meters throughout the city earlier this decade, Mayor Jack Young announced Wednesday. 

Young said the city has a five year contract with Itron, a Washington state based company, to conduct meter reading, small meter installation and general maintenance. It’s not the first time the company has worked with Baltimore: in 2013, the city awarded Itron an $83 million contract to overhaul and upgrade its water metering infrastructure, which included adding additional meters.   

“Our customers deserve accurate and timely water bills,” Mayor Young said in a statement. “The fact that this continues to be an issue even after we invested in automated meters means that we must take further action to address the problem.” 

He said that outsourcing meter maintenance to the company will both increase the city’s revenue and reduce operational costs to the tune of $50 million in savings over the 5-year contract.

In a statement, Itron spokeswoman Alison Mallahan said the company looks forward to expanding its relationship with Baltimore.

"Itron has extensive experience in managed services, managing more than 65 million endpoints on behalf of our customers, globally," she said. "Our managed services model allows utilities to focus on serving their customers while Itron keeps their technology solutions secure, current and optimized for performance."

Baltimore provides water and sewer services to more than 410,000 customers, half of whom live in Baltimore County. The savings will go to water bill financial assistance programs for low-income city customers, as mandated by the Water Accountability and Equity Act, according to the Democrat’s office.

The mayor delayed the implementation of the WAEA, which would establish a tiered water billing discount system and create an independent office for customer issues, four days before it was due to launch over the summer, citing the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the city’s budget.

Young’s office also said 63 city meter operations employees will be laid off as a result of the contract, which does not require Itron to hire them back. The city will work with the laid off employees to find other employment opportunities.  

City Council President Brandon Scott said in a statement that he was not granted an opportunity to fully evaluate the contract. 

“My thoughts are immediately with the employees who will now be jobless,” the Democrat said. “Laying off employees during a serious recession and global pandemic is not something to be taken lightly. As I continue to learn more about why this decision was made, I will advocate for the city to connect the laid off employees with alternate opportunities, while continuing to press for improvements to our water billing system.”

DPW’s fumbled meter readings and uncollected revenues have been the source of residents’ woes for years. 

Last year, Mayor Young ordered an audit of the agency after news broke that it failed to bill the upscale Ritz-Carlton Residences in Federal Hill for more than a decade, resulting in $2.3 million of outstanding revenue. Building management had repeatedly requested billing from the city, as early as 2009.

“Outsourcing city jobs to a third-party won't fix the problems with our dysfunctional billing system,” Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said. “DPW employees are not the problem, the system is. Instead of working to implement real solutions, like the Water Accountability and Equity Act, Mayor Young is yet again choosing to pass the buck on making our water system work for all Baltimoreans.”

 

This article has been updated.

 

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