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Dysfunctional Water System Cost Baltimore City, County Millions, Report Says

Screenshot via CharmTV

Despite more than $130 million worth of contracts spread out over a decade that aimed to improve Baltimore City and Baltimore County’s shared, aging water system, a joint report from the city’s and county’s Offices of the Inspector General released Monday discovered more than 22,000 dysfunctional water meters that have resulted in millions of dollars worth of uncollected revenue. 

Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming and Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan also decried “a fundamental lack of communication between the city and the county [that] is central to the problems that have been plaguing the water billing system for years” in the report, which landed after nine months of investigation. 

The aging water and sewage system is managed by the city’s Department of Public Works.  Thousands of the dysfunctional meters have produced readings that say that customers have used no water at all.

“What that means is people are getting bills that have the minimum charge,” Cumming said at a news conference. “They just think they don't pay a lot for water. ...and the result is that five percent of all meters cost the city and county over a million dollars.”

The broken meters have other serious ramifications as well: The county’s annual usage of water is used to determine how much the county owes the city each year and the faulty readings have lowered that payment. 

The report also found significant problems with the system the jurisdictions use to investigate faulty meter readings. In December of 2017, public works managers in Baltimore City asked Baltimore County to establish an email notification system to notify the city about water issues, such as faulty meters or billing issues.

To date, that notification system has logged more than 12,000 emails. Approximately 8,600 of those emails have not been addressed by Baltimore City, and the majority of those emails have been open for more than a year.

That’s a form of waste that translates to millions of dollars in unbilled or underbilled fees, said Madigan. The report also says the acting Director of Public Works, Matthew Garbark, was unaware of this problem. 

Among those more than $130 million in contracts aimed at improving the water system that Cumming and Madigan cited was one for $420,000 awarded to a company called Baker Tilly. The company conducted an analysis of the water system and provided 75 pages worth of suggestions for improvement. The county then sent that report along to the city -- but then-DPW Director Rudy Chow never responded. 

The “fundamental lack of communication between the City and the County is central to the problems that have been plaguing the water billing system for years,” the report continues. 

The inspectors general recommended that the city and county implement a more comprehensive and coordinated approach...comprehensive and coordinated approach going forward to properly address these issues.

Mayor Brandon Scott and County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr., both Democrats, appeared at a news conference alongside the two inspectors general this morning. Scott said the report highlights a need for increased collaboration between the jurisdictions. 

“This is a top priority for us,” Scott said. “Many of the challenges we face in city government, modernizing outdated systems will not happen overnight, but are possible through partnership and in this case with regional collaboration.”

Olszewski agreed and said it’s time for the county and city to work more closely together, pointing to work the governments did together after last week’s snowfall.

“We saw how governments living this philosophy can improve the quality of lives for all of our residents,” he said. “Our snow plow teams work together for the first time to clear roads that cross borders, rather than simply stopping at the line and turning around, the approach to our shared water system and its long standing challenges should be no different.”

Cummings’ and Madigan’s report is hardly the first to detail chaos at the city’s Department of Public Works. Last year, a report found that the agency had not billed the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Inner Harbor for water since 2007, chalking up to $2.3 million of uncollected revenue. Meanwhile, the agency overcharged thousands of other customers by a total of at least $9 million, according to a 2012 city audit.  

Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, said the Monday report shows how starkly broken the billing system is. 

“Millions of dollars wasted in contracts, thousands of unresolved customer service tickets, broken meters, and ignored audits are hardly surprising, but are still deeply enraging,” she said, decrying DPW’s opposition to the Water Accountability and Equity Act. The bill, which streamlined the dispute resolution process and created a tiered discount system for low-income Baltimoreans, passed the City Council. But portions have yet to be implemented due to an executive order delaying its effective date from former Mayor Jack Young.

“We need more public oversight and involvement, not less,” Eckel said. 

Scott said the report highlighted the need for the act’s implementation. He and Olszewski also said they are looking at all options for greater collaboration between them. Neither ruled out creating a regional water authority.


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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