Water billing measure on hold

Md. lawmakers to review issue of unmetered bills over the summer

`Something we'll tackle next year'

County legislators plan similar proposal locally

March 25, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

State legislators said yesterday that they will delay considering a bill that would outlaw unmetered water billing to review the issue during the summer. The legislation is expected to be reintroduced next year.

"With so much happening with slots, there's not enough time to understand the problem," explained Del. Elizabeth Bobo, one of the bill's sponsors.

"I don't put a bill in unless I want it to pass," added Bobo, a Howard County Democrat. "I expect this is something we'll tackle next year."

In Howard County, lawmakers said they would work to introduce local legislation this year that would regulate unmetered billing in the county. A citizens group studied unmetered billing last year and recommended that the county regulate the practice.

"We'll move speed full speed ahead to protect the citizens of this county," Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said yesterday.

The state bill, co-sponsored by Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, and Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican, would have required landlords to install individual meters in apartments by next year, capped monthly charges that billing companies can charge tenants and imposed a $1,000 fine on landlords who continue to use unmetered billing.

Most Maryland apartment residents have their water and sewer fees included in their rent. And some residents in newer apartment buildings have meters installed in their apartments that will measure exact usage.

At least 89 Maryland apartment complexes contract with billing companies to charge residents for a portion of water and sewer that the entire complex uses. The billing company subtracts a portion of the bill to account for common-area uses such as sprinkler systems and then divides the rest among tenants, using formulas that take into account square footage, the number of bathrooms or the number of tenants.

The billing company also generally charges tenants a monthly billing fee of as much as $3.

Practice called unfair

The billing companies say that unmetered billing encourages apartment residents to save nearly 2 million gallons of water a year in Maryland, but critics say the practice is unfair. Under such systems, a businessman who travels frequently could pay as much as a family of four that runs the dishwasher every night.

And in Howard County, a Sun examination found that some apartment residents were paying as much as $40 a month for water and sewer, as much as homeowners who have lawns and pools.

Regulated elsewhere

The practice has been regulated in North Carolina, Delaware and Oregon, among other places.

Backers of the bill said they are not disappointed by the postponement.

"We'll be happy to participate during the summer, if they ask," said People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso, the Maryland advocate for residential customers in utility matters who testified against unmetered water billing during a hearing last week. "We still support legislation."

Proponents of unmetered billing said that they will continue to lobby delegates during the summer.

Chance `to learn more'

"It will give them an opportunity to learn more about the industry. They will be in a better position to make a decision," said Bill Griffin, vice president and general counsel of National Water & Power, a water billing company in Santa Ana, Calif., and a representative of the National Submetering & Utility Allocation Association.

Griffin testified in favor of unmetered billing at last week's hearing.

Howard officials said they are still shaping their local water billing legislation but that it will closely resemble the proposed state bill.

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