Thursday, July 19, 2018

Baltimore's dysfunctional water company: We learn as we go

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. 

Not there.

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.

"Excuse me?"

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.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Baltimore City Government Services: A Comedy of Errors

I don't publish in this blog as much as I could, but frankly I think I am becoming immune to the bullshit of life that you have in Baltimore, Maryland.

However, three events in the past three days, ALL, interconnected seem to be the perfect example of the inefficiencies and absurdities of life in this place I have to call home for about the next 15 years.

First some background.  Usually, garbage pick up in this city is second to none.  So is recycling. For that, they get an A+++++++++.  They do it right and it always gets done.

But neighborhood departments do not work well with one and other and they seem to have always had this problem.  I have reviewed some historical papers regarding the street maintenance and drains departments that show that the two work, not in cooperation, but against one and other.

The other two things you need to know is that we are supposed to have our streets swept on a once a month schedule, AND, this is done to keep street crap from flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

So we "usually" get our streets swept on the third Thursday of month, March through November when the machines will work and their is no ice or snow and the water they clean down the streets won't freeze.

So this past week, this happens:

WEDNESDAY - It's the third Wednesday of the month.  The street cleaning machine comes down our street once on the south side.  Then it goes back up the street on the south side.  Then up and down the same side three or four times, going back and fourth several times, backing up, moving forward on the block to west, but never getting to the north side of the street.

So at 5pm, I call 311, Mayor's Action Line, and ask what is going on.

ME: What exact day of the week is the street supposed to be swept?
OPERATOR: I don't have that information, but we would like all residents to move their cars on the day of the street sweeping.
ME: That's great, what day do we move our cars?
OPERATOR  I don't have that information, but we would like all residents to move their cars on the day of the street sweeping.
ME: How do we know when when to move our cars if the city doesn't post signs or you have no idea of the schedule?
OPERATOR: Well, if you would allow me to finish, we don't post signs, but we ask that all residents move their cars so the street can be swept.
OPERATOR: Have I answered your question?
ME: No, You still haven't told me what day of the month the street is to be swept.
OPERATOR: I don't have that information, but we would like all residents to move their cars on the day of the street sweeping. AND REPEAT...

So the operator files TWO reports.

Report ONE: Asks that the street on the north side be swept.  "That will happen within 30 days."
Report TWO: Asks that the street drain - don't use the phrase "catch basin" because they have no idea what language it is or what it means - at the corner be cleaned.  Same 30 day promise.

That was at 5PM.

At 5:42PM, the street sweeper appears and cleans the street, after everyone has moved their cars back into curbside parking.   So the street can't be swept.  But they have fulfilled their obligation to sweep the street, even though its after logical, sensible business hours.   But the street drains are still full of crap.

THURSDAY: A crew in a orange truck shows up.  They hook up a hose to a fire hydrant, get out their brooms and proceeds to sweep and wash all of the leaves and street crap that the machine missed down into the storm drains.

That's right, they move all of the crap that the street sweeper is supposed to have swept into its bin to keep it out of the bay into the storm drains where we, the residents, have been told not to dump anything.

I call the city and ask "What the hey?" 

Well, I am told, they are cleaning the streets per your call.

Well, I tell them, they are doing it incorrectly.

Well, I am told "Our professionals follow protocol."

Well, I say to myself, fuck me!


A BLUE truck shows up in the morning and six guys hop out of the crew cab and they look down the drains.  I approach.  What's up guys.

They ask, do you live here and I explain that I live in the neighborhood. 

Well, they tell me, residents must not fill the drains with leaves and street debris.  Now they have to send for a sewer vacuum to clean out the street drain, which is clogged up with stuff that could flow into the bay.

Well, I explain, that a city truck was here yesterday, not the residents, and this is what happened...

The gentleman looks at me and says "They shouldn't have done that."

No shit.

SO NOW a fourth truck and crew will have to come out to suck that crap out of the city drains because guy No. 1 didn't do his job, crew No. 2 didn't do their job correctly, meaning crew No 3. couldn't do their job at all.

So evidently, this is why things are so fucked up when one simple thing should have taken care of everything.

Inefficiency. THIS is what I hate about Baltimore.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rude ass people

So the other day - and yes, I am posting to this rotting corpse of a blog for the first time in a year and a half - I am in the local Eddie's picking up some stuff for dinner and there is a line of people at the register.  Normally, Eddies never makes you wait more than a person or two, but today, it was busy, and early.

One of the cashiers was told to close her line for a break and she did, but as she walked past the longer line, she came upon the older white man in front of me who was buying a USAToday.  Now there were about four people in front of him, so she very nicely, very gently tried to him:

Cashier: Excuse me sir, but I can ring you through on my register.
Man: (gives her a dirty look)
Cashier: "I would be happy to ring that up for you."
Man: "Get away.  Leave me alone."
Cashier, to me: "Can I help you on my register?"
Me: "Sure. Thank you."

Out in the parking lot, Mr. Crabass was getting into his big old ugly Cadillac, going on his ugly ass way, opposite of my direction.

The point is that she was trying her best to help the guy.  Instead of saying "no thank you," it was "Get away," and "leave me alone."

I understand that you are going to find crabby people, anywhere.

People wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

People may have had a bad morning.

People can have a lot on their minds.

People can even dislike people.

But being an asshole to someone who is trying to help you, its just rude.

Down right rude.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

This man in an Audi parked at Graul's in Ruxton

So I know that it's been awhile, but stuff has been going on, you know?

So now I have the time to revisit this issue about What I Hate About Baltimore.

And today's rant is this guy in an Audi - a ridiculously expensive Audi, parked at Graul's in Ruxton.

Now, I love me some Graul's - sometimes you need a market that can pamper you, and it's all that.

But I pulled into its lot the other day and parked my car in one of their parallel spaces.  Now I am an expert parker when it comes to parallel spaces.  I had two great teachers of parallel parking.  The first is my father, who ran me through the deal every time he took me to his office in downtown Cleveland.  Walked me through the alignment, the wheel cutting, everything.

My second teacher was the city of Washington, D.C.  Folks, parking in DC is sink or swim.  You have to be good at it.  And I got very good at it.

So I get out of my car and it is 6" from the curb.  The people in back and front each have three to four feet from the back of my bumper to the front of there's.  I am equidistant from each of my bumpers to the forward aft lines of my spot.

The the driver of the Audi behind me opens up his door and tells me to move my car forward because I have boxed him in.

So I look.

The man has over three feet between my bumper and his in the front, and about four feet between the tail of his car and the bumper of the suspiciously macho Ford 250 truck behind him.   So I point this out.

He gives me a dirty "Nevermind," and a blow off wave, backs up, cuts his wheels, and pulls out, and drives away, slipping me the finger.

Now, had I pulled up those few inches, because he was "boxed in", then I would have boxed the car in front of me in.   This would have also set me up to be boxed in in the rear because drivers in Baltimore seldom park within the lines.

And the more I thought about it, the more reasons I came up as to why this guy wanted me to move my car for his convenience:

1) He was planning on using the space I took to pull forward when he was good and ready.
2) He was too lazy to turn his head and look to see how much space he had.

And my favorite:  "This is Ruxton, and you are making my life inconvenient."

I think the last reason is it.

Still, it speaks to larger problem.  These idiots who go out and buy these obscenely expensive cars, with all these parking assists - like active backing assists that sound alarms when you get too close to a bumper or object behind you, or the satellite parking assists that park your car for you because you never did figure out how to parallel park like you should of.   Never mind that we have necks that allow us to turn our heads except in cases where we have a legitimate injury of condition.

Now had I parked wrong, if I had parked sloppily. Had I parked in such a way, even, that I would have damaged his vehicle, then yes.  I should move my car and fix the parking as not to inconvenience others.

But I was perfect in my space.

This guy's only problem was that he has too much money and is too lazy to drive his own car.   To fix that, the jerk wanted me to put myself out.

And that is what I hate about Baltimore - people are lousy at parking, and lazy about getting out of their own spaces.

Monday, January 26, 2015

White death, part XII

People, this is their idea of certain white death.

Well, here I sit, alone in my house with the dogs on a planned day off, and wouldn't you know it but Baltimore is under siege, again, with Winter Storm Janis.  Janis is bearing down on us, dropping three or maybe four inches of snow.  And WHITE DEATH is upon us, AGAIN, as if it were the first time we have had snow this season.

C'mon, people - grow some balls, already.

It is January 26th, and we are one week until Groundhog Day, but the feeble minded people Baltimore are acting as if Stephen King has scripted another Storm of the Century.  And I can hear them now, worried that Andre Linoge has arrived and wants to claim someone's child in order for the snow to stop!

"Sweet Merciful Jesus, what we going to now?"

We were supposed to get walloped on Saturday.  Then they said Friday.  Then they said Friday really bad.  THEN they added in Sunday.

So the people who didn't get that extra gallon of milk on Friday are jamming the stores today, clearing the shelves of everything from Maypo to capers preparing for the BIG dig out.

Even our councilman, Bill Henry (who is the biggest jerk-off in a city of jerk-off's) sent out a missive about keeping walks clean for the postman, with a warning that if we fail to clear the walks within THREE HOURS of the snow we will be FINED!  Because God forbid that postmen who tramp through our snow covered yards care about the walks.

Hells Bells, even the Baltimore public school system went into today on a two hour delay (when we had no snow) and have already decided that they are releasing at least an hour early, when we might have two inches of snow?

Meanwhile, up in New England they might get two feet.  Now thats what I call snow.

"But, but, but," say the pansy asses around here, "they're used to getting snow up there.  We get ice and ice is more dangerous than snow..."

True dat.

The great ironies are many:

1) Yes, we get ice.  And ice is dangerous.  But you, as a city, do not maintain the roads.  AND you as a population do not slow down when its icy.  No instead you speed up.  What the fuck, seriously.

2) We get snow here.  This isn't a one time event.  The dogwood is not in bloom, covered in a tuft of snow,  THIS HAPPENS EVERY WINTER, and THROUGHOUT the damn winter.   Yet like bunch of simple beings it snows and they greet it with all the wonder of "what is the Lord doing to us now?"

Seriously, for these people, EVERY FUCKING SNOW STORM is just like Bill Murray's Groundhog Day.  With one important difference: Baltimoreans have incredibly short memories of what happened the week before.

Looking at a calender, we have about six weeks until the spring thaw begins to set in.  And February and March are cruel months to be sure.  But when the next snow blows in, at least I won't be hiding under the bed like the rest of them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Oh, LAW! It's SNOWING and we're all going to DIE"

From the looks of things, the picture above is a tell tail sign that certain DEATH is headed our way as its SNOWING for GOD'S SAKE.  Said the woman in the line at the market this morning, even before the snow started falling: "Oh, Law! This snow from the global warming is going to ruin my Thanksgiving!"

If its one thing that people in Baltimore and Washington can't handle, it's snow.

And I'm not talking a lot.  I mean some on the cars, the roofs, but melting when it hits the ground. Maybe a fraction of an inch.

You'd think its the end of the earth.

And how do they react?

  • Because they think that snow will harm their fine automobiles, they drive even worse than they do when the roads are dry, its sunny out and 70 degrees.  Traffic lights, speed limits and lines on the roadways be damned.  Add 20mph to your speed if the roads are icy, just to be safe. 
  • Bad parking becomes worse, because not only can't they see the lines, but it means they can park any old way they wish.   Never mind if they know that the spaces at the Target go one direction.  If there is snow in the air, it's every man for themselves. 
  • They panic buy, everything when a 1/4" is forecasted.  One need only visit the TERRIBLE Giant Food on York Road, south of Towson to see this idiocy in action. 
  • They close the schools if 1/4 is forecasted in November, because November snow must do something evil, like dissolve the children. 
  • They close the schools if a 1/2 is forecasted in December - because they don't want children trapped in a school for Christmas, even if Christmas is still three weeks away. 
  • The News bulletins and the out doing of the Dual Doppler Radar.  Nothing elicits panic like second by second calling of the SNOW falling.  All this does is draw Baltimorians to the place where the snow falls. 
  • "It's snowing - quick we have to get to the beltway, NOW!" They jam onto the beltway even if traffic is at a standstill while secondary roads remain open and passable. Nevermind that Putty Hill Road will take you from East Towson to Bel Air Road in 20 minutes at; they have to clog up the beltway where they sit for HOURS so they have something to bitch about. 
  • If it snows at BWI, that's it.  No one is going anywhere.  Why?  Just because; that's why.
And this just isn't a one time deal, it's all freaking winter, so in the spring, they can complain about the total snowfall, usually about 8", and bitch about "the climate change". 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Way WBAL Credits Tim Tooten

FIRST, and FOREMOST, let me say that I respect WBAL-TV reporter Tim Tooten.  He's an awesome reporter, very thorough, and he's a great communicator.   At WBAL-TV, the local NBC affiliate, Tooten covers education stories.  Tim Tooten is a-OK in my book.

When he's not a reporter, Tooten is a minister, and he has earned - through very hard work and with purpose - his Doctor of Divinity from Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia.  And to Rev. Tooten, I tip my hat.

What what makes me nuts is the way the station credits him when he is on air, which is as Dr. Tim Tooten, DdM.

See, I am old school on reporting.  I hate what has happened to new reporting - where the talking heads espouse their opinions.  To me, news should be news.  You report the facts as objectively as you can, which is what Tooten does.

But that "Doctor" in front of his name has no business in front of his name as a reporter, and I mean no disrespect in saying that. Titles are used when one is guest on the news for an interview -OR- one is reporting on their area of expertise.

But in broadcast news, it isn't Mr. Tim Tooten, its Tim Tooten.  It isn't Mr. Bryan Williams, its Bryan Williams.  If he is reporting about Medicine, then he is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, MD because that is his field of expertise.  But if the person is an unaccredited weather person, its not "Mr." or "Ms." someone, its just their name.

I asked a native Baltimorean about Tooten's degree being added to his name.  "Well," she said, "in the African American community, having that Doctor of Divinity degree really signifies that he is a leader - that he has worked hard to obtain something of meaning and wisdom."

OK, says I, but does it seem affected when he isn't reporting on his field of expertise?

"Honestly, I think that white people see it as a hurdle, but it doesn't taint my opinion one way or another."

What then would she think if Rabbi Sam Plotnik left the Temple to become a news anchor?  How would "Rabbi Sam Plotnik with the news, at six and eleven" sound?

She saw my point.  "Maybe Dr. Tim Tooten would do a story on that."

And that, we both agreed, would be the right time for his degree to come into play.