Micah Cohen got a nasty surprise recently when he opened the water bills for several of the Baltimore properties he rents out: They weren't for the usual three months. The charges stretched over half a year in some cases and nearly a year in others.
That meant much bigger payments than he and his tenants -- who reimburse him -- are used to making in one fell swoop. He sent as an example a bill for one of the homes, which came to $1,300 for eight months.
"How is anyone supposed to pay this?" Cohen wrote. "Are any other normal working people in the city being billed out-of-cycle like this (months and months of non-billing, then BAM! a huge multi-quarter bill!)?"
Yes -- along with other problems. Auditors looking at bills issued to 70,000 customers of the city's water system found that 65,000 were likely overcharged over the past three years, most of whom had not been made whole. The city said Wednesday that it is issuing refunds to 38,000 households in the city and Baltimore County, averaging more than $110 apiece.
More on that in this story by colleagues Julie Scharper and Luke Broadwater. (And check out @WaterBillWoman, the Twitter account of a city resident who's been insisting for quite some time that the system was in trouble.)
But what happened in Cohen's case? The city Department of Public Works looked into the bill he sent me -- covering nearly three full quarters rather than one -- when I inquired.
Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the agency, said the meter reading on that property failed "tolerance" (meaning it was either unusually high or low), so it was supposed to be immediately kicked back to a meter reader to see if an error had been made or if the meter was faulty. Only afterward would a bill be sent out.
"What happened in this case was, reads were going in quarterly but the reads kept failing tolerance and for this particular property for some reason, a new read was not ordered," Kocher said. "And that caused the delays."
He said a payment plan might be possible to ease the pain of a larger-than-normal bill. But he added that property owners have a responsibility to know when their water bills should come and to call the city if nothing arrives. Homeowners can email firstname.lastname@example.org, he said.
"Always remember you've got bills to pay," Kocher said.
Cohen, who says with only slight exaggeration that property owners have about 80 bills to keep track of, isn't wild about Kocher's suggestion. "Billing me shouldn't be my responsibility. You want my money, bill me!" he wrote, adding: "If the cable company can manage to bill me regularly, I don't see why Baltimore City can't."
But he's very enthusiastic about the staffers in the water department who handle calls about billing. One employee in particular has spent so much time trying to resolve his problem that he declares her an "angel." She's set in motion new bills on two of his properties, saying the amounts weren't just high because they were for more than one quarter, they were actually incorrect, he told me Wednesday.
"I was actually told that the reason for the jumbled billing cycles and huge bills was because of a scheduling glitch (a freezing cold reading date) that affected meters and readings all over the city," Cohen said.
As I was starting to write this piece, I heard from another Baltimore homeowner that she too got a water bill for more than three months -- May through October for a property she purchased in November. Lisa Potteiger's understanding is that the previous owner will be on the hook for that bill, but she's upset about the delay because she thinks it would have made clear before she settled on the home that there's a leak.
"Right now I am looking at a minimum of $2,500 for this repair," she wrote me. "NOW they are back on top of billing on time and my current water bill is over $1,200 and counting until I get it fixed."
When I inquired about her case Wednesday, a city staffer immediately contacted her to try to resolve the problem.
Kocher said the public works agency is working to overhaul the system so it functions better in the future. (Here's an announcement about that from last year, and a follow-up here.) "We are moving very rapidly toward getting the new metering and billing system going," he said.