Unmetered water bills debate continues

Advisory panel undecided

hearing is last of four

October 16, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

While some local and state elected officials from Howard County say they are ready to regulate unmetered water billing, members of a Howard County advisory group investigating the practice said last night that they were still debating whether to recommend such action.

"I don't think it's appropriate to comment on the sense of where the board is going because I don't think there is a clear sense," said William C. Woodcock Jr., a member of the advisory group, after a hearing on the unmetered billing last night.

The meeting was the last of four scheduled hearings set up to assess the practice under which apartment dwellers pay water and sewer bills based on estimates of use rather than metered readings.

The six advisory board members have been hearing testimony from water billing advocates and residents on unmetered billing, known as a Ratio Utility Billing System, or RUBS, which is used in at least 20 Howard apartment complexes.

The board is to present a report to the County Council by Dec. 1 on whether the county government should take steps to regulate RUBS.

The growing practice of unmetered billing has stirred controversy as it has spread across the country in recent years. Laws to regulate it have been passed in some localities, including in Texas and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Landlords traditionally have paid for tenants' water and sewer use, but under a RUBS system, tenants pay. Based on a formula in which the landlord contributes a portion of the complex's total bill, the remainder is divided among residents based on factors such as the number of tenants, square feet or bedrooms in a unit.

Critics say unmetered billing is unfair because under RUBS formulas, single people living in a two-bedroom apartment sometimes pay as much for their water and sewer use as a family of four living in a similar space.

Landlords using RUBS rarely bill tenants directly, instead contracting the work to third-party billing companies, which typically charge a monthly service fee of about $3 a unit for administering the bills.

Water billing companies and landlords organized a loose coalition to attend two of the four hearings, and have argued that charging residents for water and sewer is good because it encourages water conservation. They also say that the bills are fair because billing companies cannot profit from selling the water.

But tenants say that they are being charged for water they do not use and that bills include no clear explanation of what they are being charged for.

While he awaited the board's findings, County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said that he expects RUBS to be regulated and that he favors adopting a RUBS formula that would be applied to all Howard apartment complexes. But Gray, who is running for a state Senate seat, did not rule out the possibility that the council could bar RUBS altogether.

"What it boils down to is there has to be a system in which a person will pay for water usage and not by an artificial system or formula," he said.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he also expects the task force to recommend changes. "I would be surprised if the committee didn't offer some suggestions of regulation," Guzzone said.

Howard representatives in the state legislature also said they would be willing to support regulatory legislation, depending on the findings of Howard's committee.

"I would like to see people who live in apartments ... pay as fairly as individual homeowners do; if it takes legislation to do so, then I would be willing to carry it," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who represents west Columbia.

"There are a number of senators that are very interested in this issue and want to find out if there's something we can do," said Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican who is running for re-election against Gray.

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