Katie Pinheiro, left, a resident of Croydon Road in Homeland,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Two city water meter readers turned in phony numbers in at least two neighborhoods in recent months, the Department of Public Works acknowledged Tuesday, leading to more inaccurate billing by an agency that has been troubled by aging infrastructure and high error rates.
As the Bureau of Water and Wastewater tries to correct the mistakes, residents who were undercharged are seeing a spike in their water charges — and officials say they must pay.
The latest twist in the city's water billing problems, which have affected at least one in 10 local homeowners, did not go over well in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Homeland, where residents were already angry about the unusually high charges.
"I should not have to pay for their mistake," said Avraham Amith, an 83-year-old Homeland man whose most recent quarterly bill came to more than $600 — four and a half times his average over the last decade, he said.
"They're a mess," Amith said. "There's no question about that."
Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the water bureau, blamed the fake readings on the laziness of two employees who are no longer working for the city.
Instead of actually reading the meters — which would have required that they walk through neighborhoods and lift meter covers — they simply made the numbers up, Kocher said.
"This was totally irresponsible," Kocher said. "These were people who were not doing their jobs. They hurt themselves and caused problems for the citizens."
Kocher said officials first noticed fake readings in Ednor Gardens-Lakeside. The Sun has received reports of unusually large bills from several residents in Morrell Park, and from individuals in other neighborhoods.
Kocher said the department is investigating to see if other employees submitted fake readings, and if other neighborhoods were affected. He said the workers were removed in January, but the ramifications of their actions are still being felt.
Homeland residents say the city never explained why they suddenly received sharply higher bills. When they called customer service to complain, they say, they were passed around, made to wait on hold and ultimately told that they must have a leaking pipe or running toilet.
"No one seems to know anything," neighborhood resident Katie Pinheiro said. "They transfer you from one department to another department."
Kocher acknowledged the falsified readings after a Baltimore Sun reporter asked about the unusually high bills delivered to customers in Homeland in the past two weeks. At least 25 residents there say their water charges doubled, tripled or quadrupled.
Kocher said one of the employees was fired and the other resigned. He declined to name either worker but said they had worked for the city for eight months.
Pinheiro said that "about half of Homeland" received unusually high bills for the most recent quarter. Lynn Petersons, the operations manager of the Homeland Association, said her email inbox has been flooded with messages from angry homeowners.
"When they look at their bills, they're stunned," Petersons said. "Then when they start calling the city, they're very frustrated. They're not getting any satisfaction."
Amith said his bill has fluctuated over time, but he had never received one as high as $600. When he contacted the city to complain about the bill, workers told him nothing of the phony readings.
"I was told the standard answer: 'You must have a leak,'" he said. Amith said he then spent $115 on a plumber who assured him there was no such leak.
"If they suspected something was wrong, why did they tell me to hire a plumber?" he asked.
Pinheiro, who bought her house last year, said she should not be charged extra because the previous homeowner might have been underbilled.
"I'm not going to pay for a penny of what I haven't used," she said. "It's ridiculous that I should have to pay for someone else's usage."
The Department of Public Works has been under fire not only from customers but also from the City Council after a highly critical city auditor's report documented widespread problems with water billing. The department collects more than $130 million a year.
After the auditor's report, the department reviewed about 70,000 of its 410,000 customer accounts — and issued $4.2 million in refunds.
Records show that nearly one in 10 households on city water has been overcharged in recent years — and the actual figure could be far higher, since the city has not routinely checked for mistakes unless a customer complained.
City officials have argued that the water-billing problem has been overstated, but they have also pledged to institute reforms, which Kocher called "interim steps" to overhauling the entire antiquated system. Officials say they've hired more staff and replaced problem meters; in the longer term, they plan to convert to electronic meters.