Montgomery group urges curbs on unmetered water billing

Restrict the way residents can be charged, it says

Suggestions echo those in Howard

February 04, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

A Montgomery County citizens group recommended yesterday that the County Council regulate unmetered water billing in apartment complexes, making Montgomery the second municipality in the state to suggest curbs to the practice.

The group suggested that the county restrict the way residents can be charged for water and sewer use, and limit service fees and charges that landlords can pass to tenants.

A Howard County group made similar suggestions in December and also recommended that unmetered billing be outlawed in Howard by 2013.

Until last year, no Maryland municipality had tried to regulate the industry. It is regulated in areas including Oregon, Texas and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Consumer experts say the recommendations are a sign that Maryland is rapidly catching up to such states and increase the likelihood of further regulations.

`A big help'

Some elected officials are exploring the option of introducing statewide laws.

"The fact that two counties have made recommendations will be a big help," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who is working to introduce legislation to regulate unmetered water billing.

Water and sewer costs were historically included in the rent of apartment dwellers. But as water costs increased over the past decade, more landlords have begun charging tenants separately for water.

Some landlords have installed a meter in each dwelling so they can bill tenants for their exact water usage. Others, particularly those who own older buildings where the plumbing system makes it difficult to install meters, use unmetered billing.

Typically, a landlord using an unmetered billing system will contract the work to a billing company, which will take the total cost for a complex, subtract a percentage for common area costs such as pools and laundry rooms, and then divide the rest based on variables such as the number of people, square feet or rooms in a unit. The company will then charge the tenants and is responsible for collecting the money. In addition, the billing company will charge tenants a monthly service fee of up to $3.

While consumers decry unmetered water billing as unfair, landlords and billing companies say the practice promotes conservation because it makes tenants think about their water usage.

List of suggestions

Montgomery County held a series of meetings over the past year to examine the problem. The three-member panel made these recommendations:

Landlords must deduct 15 percent from the total bill if the complex has a outdoor sprinkler system, 10 percent if it has laundry rooms and 10 percent if it has a swimming pool.

Landlords must use a per-person formula if they use unmetered billing.

The County Council should limit monthly service fees to $1.

The recommendations, which will undergo a period of public comment before they are submitted to the Montgomery County Council, by consumer advocates.

"It's a great step. I can't imagine why any jurisdiction would be on the side of" unmetered billing, said Donald F. Rogers, an attorney with the Maryland Office of the People's Counsel, which protects the interest of residential utility customers.

Others said they hoped Montgomery County's suggestions will spur further regulation.

"It looks like a trend is setting in," said Bill Temmink, a program manager with Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit tenants-rights group that receives about 200 complaints a year related to estimated billing.

"These are some very drastic changes, considering where the state was not long ago. It seems like Maryland is moving up to the forefront," said Peter Mayer, vice president of Aquacraft Inc., a Denver company that is studying water billing practices throughout the United States.

Cost concerns

But some landlords and billing company representatives said they are concerned that the proposed regulations could drive up the cost of doing business by forcing companies to buy expensive software to calculate the bills.

Others are also concerned that landlords would be forced to check on their tenants to see "if they have too many people in the apartment," said Bill Griffin, co-chairman of the National Submetering & Utility Allocation Association. a national group. "It's really going to become a question of privacy."

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