An online tool that allows anyone to look up the water bill of any city address is going to be shut down, city officials say, as a new water billing system is implemented.
"I think everybody has a question about privacy," says Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, which administers the site. "Let's face it: With this foreign government hacking is going on, we have to make sure it's secure. Basically how much water you use is nobody else's business."
The tool, which is still working at http://cityservices.baltimorecity.gov/water/, shows the amount due and the last amount paid, the data of the last meter reading, and the account number. The current bill at 1101 Saint Paul Street, a high-rise condominium, is $13,681.48, for example, with no outstanding balance.
The look-up system allowed citizens and activists to check the city's billing practices. In the mid-2000s, Linda Stewart, a Curtis Bay bar owner, built spreadsheets using the available data to show radical disparities and howling errors in city billing data, which city auditors eventually confirmed. In 2012 the city admitted to $9 million in overbilling and promised refunds and reform.
The reforms include new "BaltiMeters" that broadcast their reading electronically. This means fewer human meter readers and fewer reader errors, according to DPW. A new billing system, due to be implemented by October 11, will complete the reforms. There will be an online tool that allows customers to check their own bills, in more detail.
Then the old website will no longer offer a look at neighboring bills.
"The new meters haven't fixed the problem," says Stewart. "I continue to see errors all the time."
The city auditor does too. Last week he released an audit that found "systemic errors" affecting 70,000 accounts.
"We're getting in line with and ahead of other utilities with modernizing, and ensuring privacy," says Kocher. "I think privacy is important to the vast number of citizens."
Stewart says she never heard of anyone complaining about their water bill being public. "There's other states that have this new software that allow you to go back three years and track your bill, and anyone can do it," she says. "It's not that the new software doesn't allow it, I think the city is afraid of what we’ll see."
Chrissy Anderson, a Southeast neighborhood activist, says she's looked up the water bills of hundreds of businesses, mainly for ammunition to take to the Liquor Board.
"I've found a connection between problem bars and overdue water bills," she says. "I've also found some that had low bills. It's a bar—obviously they're going to use water. By law they have to have running water. I don't know if the Liquor Board takes much of that into account, necessarily, but it tells a story."
DPW spokesmen Kocher and Jeffrey Raymond say citizens could could file a Public Information Act request for billing data, and the Liquor Board could request it as part of an investigation.
"Yeah. Like they'll ask for it," scoffs Matt Gonter, an East side resident who recently tried—and failed—to get the board to revoke the license of a bar that had been closed for two years—as indicated by water bills and other observations. "People like [Thomas] Akras [Deputy Executive Secretary of the Liquor Board] don't give a shit. They would never ask for it unless it was a bar they wanted to shut down."
The DPW is unmoved. "You can't make everybody happy with everything you do," says Kocher, "but you certainly can make it fair and equitable."