11 homes lose water for a day Carroll County battle centers on tenfold increase in rates

October 07, 1998|By James M. Coram and John Murphy | James M. Coram and John Murphy,SUN STAFF

State officials came to the rescue yesterday of a small neighborhood outside Westminster, where, amid a fight with a private water company over rate increases, residents' taps were turned off, leaving them to dip into swimming pools for water to bathe and flush toilets.

For a little more than 24 hours, 11 families in a subdivision off Route 27 had to buy bottled water and found their lives disrupted before service was restored. Some stayed home from work to consult with attorneys and seek help from government officials.

The residents had been complaining since August, when they received bills from the new owner of Bramble Hills Water Service Inc. that increased their water rates tenfold -- and made them the highest in Maryland, according to the Public Service Commission.

Water bills that were $500 last year could jump to $5,000 a year for a family of three, PSC officials said.

"We were paying $90 for three months. Now we're paying $900. Who can pay that?" asked Carolyn Moreland, who has lived in the small development with her husband, Paul, since 1970. "If we try to sell our house, who's going to buy it?"

Kimberly Green's Aug. 17 bill for a three-month period skyrocketed from $53 to $530. A neighbor had a bill for more than $1,000 for the same period, Paul Moreland said.

When they received water bills Aug. 17, Green and some of her neighbors balked. They refused to pay the new rates and sought instead to pay their bills at the old rate. Their checks have not been cashed, Green said.

"I don't want to be nasty, hateful or fight," said Green. "I just want to work out a reasonable water rate and live in peace."

Lots in the neighborhood are half-acres, too small for individual wells. So, since the 1960s, residents have bought water from a company that operated a communal well behind their homes.

On Monday afternoon, Green and her neighbors discovered the water had been shut off, sending them to grocery stores for bottled water and to their pools for bath water.

Many residents saw the shut-off as a retaliation for not paying the higher rates. They said they had tried to contact the owner about the problem but that their calls were not returned.

But Bradford I. Webb, a Westminster attorney representing Bramble Hills Water owner Ann Freed of Sykesville, said he does not know why the electricity operating the well's pump was shut off.

"Based on what I know she had nothing to do with it," he said.

"Someone called BGE and told them to turn it off," Webb said. The fact that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. "turned off the power to the pumping station that operates the well was not initiated by us," he said.

But last night, BGE officials said that John Freed, Ann's husband, requested on Oct. 2 that the power be turned off beginning Monday. "Mr. Freed asked that the power be turned off Oct. 5," said Karl Neddenien, spokesman for BGE. "He asked us to give him a call when we did."

When residents of the neighborhood called state officials for help yesterday, attorneys for the Maryland Department of Environment intervened, asking Bramble Hills Water to turn power back on to the water pump. The company agreed, and water service was restored to the community about 3: 30 p.m. yesterday.

Webb said Freed resolved the problem within two hours after learning that the electricity to operate the pumping station had been shut off. Freed referred all questions to her attorney.

"The rates will be regulated by government," Webb said. "But people who live there are slowly going to realize that their rates are going to be very high. The water is not going to be cheap. There are lots of government regulations that have to be complied with and they're expensive."

Officials with the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates private utility systems and their rates, said the increase seems unusually high and that they are looking into the dispute.

Until the fight began, the commission was unaware of Bramble )) Hills Water Service. The commission oversees 26 private water systems statewide, some of which serve as few as 24 customers and others that serve more than 5,000, said Zenon Sushko, engineer for the commission.

Water rates for those systems range from $100 to $800 per residence per year, Sushko said.

The tenfold rate increase handed residents Aug. 17 entered the "unrealistic realm," said Sushko.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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