Water bills and government's fragile reputation

Baltimore's Great Water Bill Commiseration goes on midst a national debate about the scope and efficiency of government

May 16, 2012|Dan Rodricks

I want to thank Ms. Nina Platt of Homeland for providing me with a copy of her outrageous water bill — and her neighbor's — because, until this happened, I was feeling left out of the Great Baltimore Water Bill Commiseration. It seems like everybody in the city but me has a goofy and outrageous water bill to brag and gripe about. My bill looks normal, boring and puny compared to what I see here: $813.75 due by May 29 for Ms. Platt, who lives alone, and $1,219.06 for the family of four next door.

According to her most recent bill, Ms. Platt used on average 1,109 gallons of water a day between the end of December and the end of March, which might be accurate if, say, she had a giant koi pond in her front yard created by a leaking underground pipe. "Even old leaky toilets can't accomplish this," she says. The neighbors supposedly averaged 1,614 gallons a day, which suggests they have a large aquarium in their living room with a couple of manatees.

These are big and outrageous numbers, to be sure, but not the most egregious that reporters for The Sun and beleaguered City Council staffers have seen. For a couple of months now, many of the city's customers have been commiserating about outsized water bills ("Mine's bigger than yours"), or about being billed for water used by the previous owners of their homes, or about getting the runaround when they call the city.

The Department of Public Works issued more than $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 households in the city and Baltimore County after an audit showed the agency overcharged thousands of customers. But that doesn't seem to have put an end to the headaches. Apparently, homeowners who were undercharged for water are expected to pay catch-up fees.

And so the Great Baltimore Water Bill Commiseration goes on, with general consternation about the city's ability to get something as simple as an accurate read on water consumption right. It comes amid an ongoing national debate about the scope and value of government, with the public's faith in it fragile at best.

The latest: A couple of lazy city workers were found to have turned in phony meter readings in recent months. One has been fired, one resigned. The revelation points up a problem with the system — human beings have to go out and actually read water meters in the ground. It brings to mind the days of the lamplighters and the ice delivery man. It's a ridiculous situation for the 21st century.

Note to the austerity zealots: If you oppose government investment in public infrastructure, and paying the taxes that requires, then don't complain about the human folly and system malfunction that lead to outrageous water bills. Fixing leaking sewage systems, upgrading water treatment plants, installing electronic water meters — it's all part of what's needed in this city and in this country. We're way behind schedule.

Now, I hesitate to bring up the late William Donald Schaefer in regard to the water bill mess, because there's an unappealing tendency to deify the man — the mayor who got everything done, the greatest mayor in America. But it's tempting to wonder what Mayor Annoyed would have done with this, and how quickly he would have responded at the first signs of trouble.

Mr. Schaefer was thin-skinned, but he listened to citizens with legitimate complaints, and I bet he would have listened to Linda Stewart, the now-legendary WaterBillWoman of Violetville who pestered the city for years about the suspicious charges.

Mr. Schaefer was famously hard on his staff when they missed things. "We're doing the best we can" wasn't good enough for him. He believed in government's noble purpose, from the ground up: to keep the streets paved, the trash removed, schools open, neighborhoods safe, water clean and flowing, and taxpayers happy.

In the Schaefer days, coincidentally, people generally had a good feeling about their government. And Mr. Schaefer, an old-school Democrat and career politician, remained popular even as Republican Ronald Reagan was telling the rest of the country that government was the problem, not the solution.

Thirty years later, that remains an overriding theme — government as problem, government in the way. If you can't get the water bills right, maybe even Democrats start to believe that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan. rodricks@baltsun.com.

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