The meter isn't running How much water did Union Bridgers use? Go ahead, take a guess.

November 06, 1995

IN SMALL TOWNS, people generally know a great deal about their neighbors. Apparently, in the western Carroll County burg of Union Bridge, town clerk Kathleen Kreimer thought she was familiar enough with her fellow residents' living habits to enable her to estimate about one-sixth of the town's water bills for years.

Mrs. Kreimer's unorthodox billing method was recently discovered. The town now must untangle this mess.

It appears that unrepaired water meters are the source of this problem. For the past 20 years, Union Bridge had a contract with Kreimer Construction Co., owned by Mrs. Kreimer's husband, of all people, to read the meters and repair broken ones. Mr. Kreimer said his company replaced about 30 broken meters annually, but no one has yet to explain why about 55 out of the 300 households with city water have had broken meters for years.

In some cases, Mrs. Kreimer went to great lengths to carry on the fiction that she was reading the meters. One household reported that its meter has been stuck since 1981, yet every quarter Mrs. Kreimer would dutifully enter the identical reading on her log. Ironically, Mrs. Kreimer apparently did not want the town to incur the expense of fixing meters, even though her husband's business would have benefited from the work.

Utilities such as BGE may estimate a bill for a couple of months, but then it will insist on obtaining an accurate reading. By sending out bills that were guesses for years, Union Bridge's government doesn't have much credibility with its customers. Many town residents are convinced they were overcharged. Others, however, may be rudely surprised by the size of their water bills once the town repairs the broken meters and can render accurate ones. None of the normal checks -- annual audits of the town's accounts by an outside firm, for example -- caught Mrs. Kreimer's practice. It will take time for the trust to be restored.

Many people, including a majority of congressmen in Washington, are convinced that local governments are the most efficient around. Incidents like this show that foolish mistakes and policies are not confined to Washington. Sometimes, they are being carried out right on Main Street.

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