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Baltimore opts not to privatize troubled water meter system

January 23, 2021 GMT

BALTIMORE (AP) — The mayor of Baltimore is reversing a decision by his predecessor to outsource the city’s water meter program to a private company.

Mayor Brandon Scott said Friday that members of Department of Public Works meter shop staff will remain in place and receive training to ensure they repair meters effectively. The city will create a task force to implement the training.

Scott said he could not explain why staff members weren’t trained when digital meters began to come online around 2017.

Former Mayor Jack Young said in October that the city would close the meter shop, which is responsible for installing, repairing and manually reading water meters. Young planned to outsource the work to Itron Inc., which was paid more than $80 million to install digital water meters in the city and Baltimore County beginning in 2013.

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But the Baltimore Sun reports that a contract with Itron for the meter shop operations was never signed, and the shop’s employees remained on the city staff. All of the shop’s 63 employees were placed on paid leave in March after the coronavirus hit. By last month, only 18 had returned to work.

The city and county have spent more than $130 million on contracts related to the joint water system since 2011 but several problems remain, including residents being overcharged and some businesses going years without paying a bill.

Scrutiny of the billing system increased following the release in December of a joint report by the inspectors general for the city and county.

The report detailed millions of dollars of lost revenue, with many malfunctioning meters reading zero water use. The report also noted that tens of thousands of digital water meters are not fully functional, and that and 8,000 “tickets” flagging problems with county water accounts have not been resolved by the city.

Acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark said getting city staff up to speed on the meter technology is the first step toward fixing other issues with the water system.

Garbark said about half of the shop’s employees are now back at work, focusing on the city’s side of the water operation. Baltimore County signed an emergency six-month contract with Itron to conduct its meter readings, he said.

Garbark said the remaining city employees will return once the new task force begins its work, including an individual skills assessment for each staff member.