Howard County landlords press their argument for unmetered water billing in apartment units

September 10, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Unmetered water billing in apartment complexes can promote water conservation, saving millions of gallons of water a year, a group of landlord and billing company advocates told a Howard County advisory board last night.

"It's the correct thing to do, economically and for the environment," said Jim Caffey, executive vice president of Maryland Multi-Housing Association Inc., which represents nearly 230 property managers and owners in the state.

The six-member advisory board is investigating unmetered billing, commonly known as a Ratio Utility Billing System or RUBS, at the request of the County Council.

The board has until Dec. 1 to issue a report, in which it could recommend that the council regulate the practice.

The systems have been declared illegal or have been regulated in a number of other states and cities, including Oregon, Texas and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Montgomery County and Nashville, Tenn., are debating whether to regulate the industry.

With RUBS, apartment dwellers do not pay a bill based on their water usage. Instead, their bills come from estimates compiled by a third-party billing company hired by the landlord.

The companies bill each tenant based on a formula, which can depend on factors such as the number of residents, bedrooms or square footage in an apartment.

Some Howard apartment residents pay more than $40 a month under such systems for their water and sewer service, an amount far in excess of the cost of that service for typical county families in detached single-family homes.

While some apartment tenants have suggested that they are being overcharged, Howard County and state officials have said that no Maryland laws govern RUBS billing.

At last night's meeting, RUBS advocates said they are not making money from administering the system and are merely passing on costs.

"No billing agencies are making a profit," said Bill Griffin, an official with the National Submetering & Utility Allocation Association who is also a lawyer for National Water and Power Inc., a company that administers RUBS in Howard County.

Griffin and others also said RUBS plans encourage apartment residents to save water. The advocates pointed to several studies that show complexes that administer RUBS can save up to 27 percent more water than complexes that do not.

Not all of the board members were convinced by the studies, which generally only cover small geographic areas.

And other water experts say that it is unclear, based on existing studies, if Ratio Utility Billing Systems lead to increased water saving.

Even Griffin said that a larger, nationwide study now being conducted should provide more conclusive answers.

"There are a lot of questions because none [of the studies] adequately address the question about which [system] saves more," said Peter Mayer, vice president of Aquacraft Inc., which is conducting the nationwide survey.

While some board members suggested putting a meter in every apartment, a practice known as submetering, Griffin and others said the practice was too expensive, especially in older buildings that have antiquated plumbing systems.

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