House to debate ban on unmetered biling

Indirect calculation of water fees called unfair

March 18, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Maryland state lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating today whether to pass legislation that would outlaw unmetered water billing in apartment complexes, giving the state some of the toughest regulations in the nation.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, and Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, would force landlords and billing companies to charge apartment renters for their exact water and sewer usage by installing meters in each unit.

Landlords and water billing companies acknowledge that unmetered billing is not as accurate as charging each apartment dweller for exact usage but defend the practice, saying it promotes conservation among apartment dwellers.

But others disagree, saying it is questionable whether unmetered billing leads to significant water conservation and contending that it is unfair to residents.

"[Unmetered water billing] may help it a very minuscule amount, but when you put that on the scale and weigh it against the inequity to the tenants, it doesn't work out," Bobo said.

At least 53,000 apartment units in Maryland are billed according to estimates of how much water they use, experts say. An analysis by The Sun last year showed that some Howard County apartment residents who do not have washing machines, lawns or pools pay as much as $40 a month for their water and sewer service, far more than homeowners who have such amenities.

Many apartment dwellers have the cost of water and sewer included in their rent. And in newer structures, many builders have installed meters in each apartment, and tenants pay their own water and sewer bills.

But landlords in some older buildings have switched to unmetered billing. They contract with a third-party billing company, which takes the complex's entire water bill and divides it among the tenants according to a formula that considers the number of people, number of bathrooms, square footage or other variables for each unit. The company then bills the residents and charges them a monthly fee, often between $2 and $3.

Under such a system, people who are judicious about their water use could pay as much as those who shower three times a day and leave the faucet running while brushing their teeth. Furthermore, it is difficult to locate leaks in the plumbing system: Residents don't know if their toilet is leaking because they do not pay for their exact water use, critics contend.

The practice has been outlawed or regulated in several jurisdictions, including Texas, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Oregon.

In addition to banning unmetered billing, the proposed Maryland legislation would limit monthly fees and would impose a $1,000 fine on any landlord who broke the law.

Bill Griffin, the vice president and general counsel of National Water & Power, based in Santa Ana, Calif., says his company administers 89 unmetered and 14 metered billing systems in the state. In a letter to the bill's sponsors, Griffin said apartment complexes in Howard County that use his company's unmetered billing service saw a 12 percent reduction in water use, about 2 million gallons a year.

Using that rate, he estimated that complexes in the state that use unmetered billing save about 178 million gallons a year. "Rather than discouraging the growth of my industry, I believe the State of Maryland should be encouraging us, because we are performing an important public service," he wrote.

Jim Caffey, executive vice president of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association Inc., a group that monitors nearly 100,000 units in the state, said the legislation could be a financial burden for owners of older buildings who cannot afford to install individual meters and would create a competitive disadvantage.

"It's ill-crafted," Caffey said of the bill.

But others disagree.

"If residents are paying a water bill based on a meter they've always used but are now paying an additional expense to a billing company ... it's pretty hard to imagine how that results in net water savings for anybody," said people's counsel Michael J. Travieso, the Maryland advocate for residential customers in utility matters.

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