By Stephen Janis
Special to the AFRO
For decades, Baltimore city foreclosed on homeowners with past due water bills for as little as $750. But revelations that a cadre of wealthy homeowners and businesses have not even received bills is prompting a council hearing to investigate the root cause of the problem.
“We have to get a hold of this issue, consistently they say they’re fixing this and they haven’t,” Council President Brandon Scott told the AFRO.
Last week the city’s finance department disclosed that a yet to be specified number of businesses have not received water bills for years. The news came shortly after reports one of the city’s wealthiest enclaves, the Ritz Carlton, had not received water bills for over a decade and owes roughly $2 million.
According to the mayor’s office said they were conducting an audit of the lapsed billing but were not prepared to release the findings now.
“An audit is currently underway,” Lester Davis, spokesman for Mayor Jack Young told the AFRO.
“The administration will provide results of the audit once it is completed.”
The uneven collection efforts follow over a decade of water price hikes that have strained both homeowners and low-income city residents. Since 2010 water rates have risen 127 percent, price increases city officials justified as the only way to fix Baltimore’s aging infrastructure.
Last year the city council passed the Water Affordability and Equity Act aimed at easing the burden of rising water rates for the city’s low-income residents. The law sets a cap on water bills for families with incomes just above the federal poverty line and establishes an office to advocate for consumers facing high bills.
But the lingering problems with the basic task of billing customers has prompted to the city’s legislative body to act. Council President Scott announced a hearing this week which will focus on flaws in the city’s billing system.
“We clearly have a problem with the billing process,” he told The AFRO.
Scott says the city’s penchant for cracking down on low income homeowners and giving businesses a pass only heightens the inequity that continues to plague Baltimore. “Clearly it is unacceptable for anyone not to get a bill.”
The city’s water billing system has been under scrutiny since 2012, when an audit determined the city had overbilled customers almost $9 million. Since then city officials have promised to fix the system.
But in 2016 the Baltimore Sun reported the former owner of Sparrows Point, a Baltimore County Steel Mill owed the city $7.6 million in past due water bills. City officials settled with the owner, ArcelorMittal USA, for $1.6 million.
“The blatant, persistent inequity of this issue is not just a question of oversight, but one of leadership,” Mayoral candidate and current State Senator Mary Washington said of reports businesses were not billed.
Washington lead efforts in Annapolis last year to ban the practice of placing liens on homeowners for unpaid water bills.
“We need to regularly audit all city agencies and use those findings to root out corruption and wasteful spending– not shove them in a drawer. It’s time we got the basics right so Baltimoreans can have faith in their government.