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Throughout the nation, residents rely on the 16,000 operating municipal wastewater treatment facilities to provide clean water to their homes and businesses. But if you happen to live in Maryland, you might have seen some curious increases reflected in your water distribution and sewer bills this year. From Ocean City to Baltimore, wastewater and water fees seem to be increasing — and sometimes, Maryland inhabitants may not know why.
Over in Baltimore County, taxpayers saw increases in their bills for the third year in a row. But some argue that the hikes were unnecessary and not indicative of true usage. Because Baltimore County officials were uncertain about the validity of the data from their new water meter system, they opted to estimate the sewer fees for local residents. The problem is that their estimates were based on water consumption from two years ago, rather than data from the year prior. Now, residents are upset over both the 8% rate increase and the fact that any efforts they’ve made to reduce their water use are now for naught.
Not only that, but residents say that the county failed to explain these changes in advance. Electronic billing can reduce customer frustration, questions, and phone calls, the county’s decision has resulted in widespread annoyance after locals opened their mail. When one resident, Richard Worch, called to ask for an explanation of the changes, the only answer he received was that it was just the way things were being done, according to reports from the Baltimore Sun.
Worch has a right to be miffed. When he inherited his father’s home in 2015, he later learned the house had a leaky toilet. Around 10% of all homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more of water per day, and Worch paid a hefty sewer fee that year: $4,300 all told. The Worch family paid that fee in 2016 and had the toilet fixed. But because the county has now based their estimates based on fees from 2015, officials say Worch now owes an additional $4,600 for his current bill.
Ironically, county officials made these decisions based on the concern that their new meter system would produce inaccurate readings. Yet, these new meters were installed to alleviate inaccuracies in the current water system. Now, officials are evidently convinced of their functionality.
“Baltimore City Department of Public Works upgraded the meters to provide a more efficient, reliable, accurate read of actual water consumption by each of our approximately 400,000 customers,” Jeffrey Raymond, department spokesperson, said in a statement. “We are fully confident in the meters and the data they provide.”
But Baltimore County isn’t the only location in Maryland that’s plagued with billing inaccuracies. In Ocean City, officials discovered that mobile home owners might have been paying too little for their water and wastewater services. Because water and sewer billing for these individuals is based on the number of water fixtures, rather than on individual consumption, there’s more room for error. Since these billing departments were using outdated estimates for the average number of fixtures, it looks like Ocean City officials could be losing out. In an attempt to recoup these losses, the city council unanimously voted to increase the water fixture baseline to six across the board (the current estimates were based on homes having four or five fixtures), as that’s most reflective of modern mobile homes. Owners who have fewer than six fixtures will have an opportunity to have their bills adjusted accordingly.
And in Bowie, residents will have to adjust to a new fee being tacked on to their water bills. After 50 years, the city’s water and sewer system is finally being upgraded, and residents will have to pay the price. That’s because the system is supported solely by its customers; no tax revenues go towards its maintenance or use. Residents will see a $22.75 fee on their July bills for these upgrades. They can also expect to see slight fee increases for ongoing services starting in 2018. Overall, officials say customers will likely see their monthly invoices increase by about $30 per quarter. Fortunately, it seems like city officials at least informed occupants of the changes being made.
While paying more for water and wastewater treatment is never going to be pleasant, it’s certainly better than the alternative. Still, residents might argue that the state needs to be more forthcoming about these changes in general — and make sure that they’re actually basing their bills on accurate data.