Baltimore's water department woes are known far and wide.
For many years, it was relatively easy to lose your home here because of water billing payments being late, being misapplied, inconsistent information from the Department of Public Works, etc.
Once you fell into "arrears" it was often times impossible for working and low-income families to get caught up when a hearing would be scheduled and your house sold for the amount owed. It was bad in Baltimore, it was worse in the District of Columbia for general property taxes.
Our first run-in with the water company was in 2012 when we received our first water bill after moving here. Columbus, Ohio, had a marvelous system. They did whatever they could to make it easy for you to process a payment. We had been in the house for TWO WEEKS when we got our first bill: $2,463 dollars and some cents.
I nearly choked. The house had been vacant long before we bought it.
I looked again. I heaved a sigh of relief. The amount was actually followed by a "cr" after the amount.
So I did what any honest person would do. I found our HUD settlement form and combed the form for that amount in the column where the seller transfers an amount of money to a buyer.
I called the water Department where some minimally involved employee told me that "Oh, we have an old computer system, so once your name goes into the system, it erases all of the other person's information."
What should I do, I asked.
"Oh, most people just keep it and use it to pay their bills into the future."
I tried to explain to the young woman that keeping it when it wasn't ours was unethical. It belonged to someone else.
"Oh," she started every sentence with 'Oh,' "Do what you want but we can't help you."
So I tracked down the seller's daughter and called her up and asked her if she was looking for $2,463 that went missing from her mother's accounts.
We got that ironed out and she paid the bill and the next bill had the account zeroed out so we were good.
THEN the city bought a new computer system that didn't require its own building to replace the old water system. Everyone is going to be billed in "real time," monthly, they said. "To ensure that errors didn't happen." That was in the fall of 2016.
Right off the bat, it was a cluster fuck.
And no amount of complaining to city hall could get the matter straightened out. Your payment must be received by your due date or you start getting fined. But who knows when the bill is going to show up? You read that right. The payment is for the full amount is due, but your meter may not be read on a regular basis.
When I called about it, they said: "Well, we have never been through a change like this so we learn as we go." Fair enough. the system is 90 days old on a new platform, I will give them that.
But its still happening. The bills aren't being cut and mailed on a regular basis. So I called again, and Public Works said: "Well, we run the bills when we have the time...of course this is a new system, so we are learning as we go along..."
And the hidden bonus with this new system? You know that being billed in "real time?" It's a lie too.
They way your bill is calculated isn't on actual usage as they claim. Your bill is based on "Units" of water used. You fill one "bucket" (or use the quantity in a unit), and then you start filling the next unit, and so on until the end of the meter reading. And you get charged for the ENTIRE unit, even if you use just one drop.
And the next month? No credit gets carried over. Everything begins anew. So they are dishonestly billing people, not telling them how it works and bilking people on fraudulent charges.
So I call the called the water company and asked them "Hey, how is it two men can use the exact amount of water every month, even when they are away from their house for three weeks?"
YOU must have a leak, they accuse. So we did a pressure check where they clock a reading, you do not turn on the taps for several hours and then they reread the number. No leak. Again, how can you be billing me for this amount when there was no one in the house?
"You'll have to talk to a supervisor, but they are all out at a meeting."
I called bullshit.
So I worked my way up the phone tree and FINALLY get to Mayor Catherine Pugh's office when I get handed to a very nice woman who promises to get this fixed. Instead, she passes the call to the head supervisor at DPW who calls me and says - and I kid you not - "Well, this is a new system, so we are learning as we go along."
And that's where I tell her to stop lying.
I explained that having worked in government and in the financial world for twenty years that I know a bull story when I hear it and "Learning as we go" ends at a year. I explain that its total B.S. to take billing as a secondary matter because it's your revenue stream. "You assign people, it gets done, and you bill people, they pay and next month the cycle repeats." None of this learning as we go B.S., which seems to be an institutionalized excuse. They were looking at revenue collection as a wayside thing.
"Let me ask you something," I posed. "If you had two people standing in front of you, and they were the available to work in your department, for your office, would you chose the reliable, dependable one who shows up on time, does their job, works well with others? Or would you choose the brilliant but erratic one - the employee who doesn't play well with others, has unpredictable moods, demands things of you, never gives you a moment's rest as a supervisor because you never know if he or she will do what needs to get done? And when you sit down to counsel that employee to improve their performance, their excuse is "Well, I am learning as I go along?"
She couldn't answer me. So I answered for her. "Right now you are 'B' - erratic, undependable, and always ready with an excuse. And who gets hurt? People on fixed income who find that they end the month with a little more in their pocket and they go out and spend on something other whats coming due next month in their water bill. So the time to rationalize we 'just learn as we go' is a no starter."
I think she got it. But it didn't cause anything to change. It can't.
But the wheels of city government in Baltimore are square they operate at an erratic rate. The water department still hasn't figured out how to bill on regular cycles, and they are still learning as they go along.