When you get your property tax bill later this year, it might be a good idea to check the fine print.
Last year's bill, too.
You may recall the recent furor over water billing for city customers by Baltimore City's Bureau of Water and Wastewater. A February audit conducted by the city comptroller's office found that estimated readings led to tens of thousands of possible instances of overbilling, while some properties hadn't recieved water bills in several years.
The Baltimore Sun reported in March that customers throughout the city and county had stories to tell of years of overbilling. Even the Baltimore County school system was not immune— was charged $100,000 for one quarter last year.
And although the city handles water billing for 600,000 county customers, the county assesses annual sewer charges with property tax bills, at a rate of $39.48 per 1,000 cubic feet of water used. The problem is this: if the city's measurements are inaccurate, the sewer bills for county residents may also be inaccurate.
And if county residents are disputing their water bills with city officials, fixing the sewer bills is a separate process.
That's what Randy Cooper learned. The Phoenix resident owns two rental properties in the unit block of York Road in Towson.
A usual water bill for his properties is $25 per quarter, but about a year ago, he started getting bills for $500 to as much as $1,000. He called Baltimore City, and he was told to call a plumber, but the plumber found no leaks.
In June, he got his property tax bill for the homes and got a second shock: property tax bills with $4,733.65 in sewer charges for one house, $600 for the other, which had no billing irregularities.
Breaking down the larger bill, it works out to 119,900 cubic feet of water.
"By this point, I'm beginning to realize there had been a major screw-up," he said. "The kids are athletes, they shower at the gym, they have one toilet, they have one dishwasher."
That "screw-up" sent Cooper's mortgage payments skyrocketing from $1,834 to $2,430 per month.
"That's not the margin of profit I have on those kinds of things," said Cooper, a teacher at the Friends School in Baltimore.
It wasn't until October that he was able to get a conference hearing with the city to adjust his water bill. His water bill was fixed in December, and he showed Patch two city refund notices.
He then had to go through the county, which adjusted the sewer bill down to $698.80.
"Our meter system is broken and our billing system is broken beyond repair, so we've got a problem," Cooper said.
Don Mohler, chief of staff to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said that residents who are due to receive refunds from the county should call 410-887-2423 and ask for a member of the Metro staff.
"We stand ready to assist them and help them correct it, but we have to know who they are," Mohler said.
For their part, officials in the city and county said the jurisdictions were working to figure out exactly how many county residents have been affected.
"They're being very cooperative and we're working through the process," Mohler said.
County Council seeks answers on water bills
Meanwhile, County Council members are looking at what to do about the continuing fallout from the city's overbilling scandal.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins quizzed Keith Dorsey, the county's director of budget and finance, at a work session last week.
She told Patch of a constituent in Overlea who lives alone and came to her with a $1,500 water bill. The unpaid bill has driven her house payments up to $1,500 per month.
Bevins said she wants the city to be more responsive on the issue.
"It's just not fair and I just can't understand why Baltimore City has admitted publically they have issues with these water bills … and I can't understand why they wouldn't just freeze or take an average," Bevins said.
Dorsey said at the work session that the customers identified in the city and county's audit would receive refunds, and that county officials are intent on avoiding results such as foreclosures as a result of the bills.
Associate Regional Editor Bryan P. Sears contributed to this report.