News Feature | July 11, 2014

High Utility Bills In Maryland Could Lead To Tighter Regs

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

9calculatorreg

County officials in Maryland are calling for the creation of an agency to help customers fight unfair water utility bills. 

The push comes after nearly 50 customers reported unusually high bills this year. They appealed the bills to the utility, but in nearly all 50 cases, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said the numbers were correct, according to the Washington Post.  

"The 50 complaints were more than the county has received about WSSC bills over the past 30 years," the article said, citing a report by the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. 

The agency began examining the issue after County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he heard from dozens of residents with complaints of unfair bills. 

In its report, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection found no single reason bills ran high. "While there is no 'one size fits all' explanation for each consumer’s allegations, there appear to be a limited number of possible explanations for why water usage and the corresponding water bill may be higher than usual," the report said, per Bethesda Now

Potential explanations included "the consumer used more water, the consumer had a leak (permanent or intermittent), the meter was not properly read by WSSC, or the meter was not properly operating," the government report said. 

"In some instances a spike in water usage was followed by a return to normal water usage readings. In some cases the fluctuations were 200% to 400% while other consumers experienced fluctuations of 5% to 100%. In some cases, the fluctuations resulted in lower usage as well as in higher usage and bills," it continued. 

The director of the consumer protection office, Eric Friedman, said one thing is clear: "Once the WSSC has concluded that the problem may be on the consumer's end, there's no recourse. Unlike Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric, which are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, there is no regulatory authority over the WSSC," WTOP reported

"Ultimately, WSSC holds the cards," he said.

Customers "who want to challenge high water bills need a way to dispute those charges outside the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission," the report concluded, according to the Post

Maryland resident Debra Doherty's was among those who complained. One of her bills totaled $1,101.65.

“I panicked,” she told The Gazette. “The highest bill I have ever had was for $307.”

As the complaints rolled in this year, the utility said high bills are the result of the difficult weather this winter. The utility's spokeswoman Lyn Riggins explained the alleged correlation to ABC 7.

"Our meter readers are behind. They have not been able to get to meters that have been buried under snow and as a result customers are getting billed for a longer-than-normal billing cycle," Riggins said.

For more policy news, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "Calculator," 401(K) 2013 © 2012, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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