One Charles Center is a 22-story office tower in downtown Baltimore that belongs to the patriarch of the family that owns the Baltimore Orioles. It’s for sale and mostly vacant.
So how could the tower use more water in a single year than any other property owner in the city — more than Johns Hopkins Hospital or Domino Sugar — and rack up a $12.3 million bill?
Peter G. Angelos originally bought One Charles Center in 1996 for $6 million using a holding company. The Angelos family and the building’s operator said the $12.3 million bill is all because of a single faulty water meter that has caused headaches for years.
In a filing to bondholders, the Baltimore Department of Public Works claimed One Charles Center used identical amounts — 100,244,700 cubic feet — of both water and wastewater in fiscal year 2022, or more than 200 million cubic feet total. That is roughly the amount of water that cascades down Niagara Falls every half-hour.
A spokesperson for the department wrote in an email that it’s working to resolve the issue and address any inaccuracies with the property’s water bill. The agency “respects the privacy of its commercial customers and does not disclose specific details about their billing information,” the email said.
This isn’t the first time the public works department has tried to bill the office tower for millions of dollars of water.
An assistant property manager for Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate company that operates the building, emailed the Department of Public Works in June 2020 after a water bill account showed “EXTREMELY high consumption” and a million dollar bill, compared to typical charges at One Charles Center of hundreds or thousands of dollars a month.
“There is obviously something VERY wrong with this account,” the assistant property manager wrote the following month. “We need to resolve asap.”
After three months, a flurry of emails and a visit from a city employee, the Department of Public Works nixed the bill. An almost identical situation played out the following year with a $10 million water bill, emails show.
Now it’s happening again, according to former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who represents the Angelos family as a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.
The $12.3 million water bill for One Charles Center is an “eye-popping” clerical error, Gansler said.
The Angelos family is hardly the first in Baltimore to run into water billing headaches, though the situation at their downtown office tower seems to be an extreme example. Many less wealthy Baltimore residents have experienced similar issues, sometimes with dire consequences. Until 2018, residents could lose their homes over unpaid water bills as low as $750.
The city in 2012 issued millions of dollars in water bill refunds after an audit revealed it had overcharged around 38,000 households, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
Former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered an audit of the system in 2019, after it came out that the city had failed to bill owners of the waterfront Ritz Carlton Residences for $2.3 million worth of water usage since 2007.
A 2020 joint report from the inspectors general for Baltimore City and Baltimore County found that, despite $133 million in improvements, the water system still had thousands of faulty water meters and more than 8,000 unresolved maintenance requests.
In a 2022 email to The Baltimore Banner, city Infrastructure Director Matthew Garbark took issue with some parts of report. The report assumed, for instance, that meters with broken or obstructed data transmission are dysfunctional, when the city could still accurately bill according to usage information recorded on the meters themselves, Garbark said.
Last year, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming reviewed the billing system of the Department of Public Works and found more than $319 million in delinquent water bills, including nearly $8 million owed by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. In a response to the report, housing authority leadership said they had been making only partial payments on their water bills and called the city’s listed balance “wildly inaccurate.”
City leaders, though, have focused on upgrades to their billing system and water meters in recent years, touting improved meter accuracy as a signature of former public works director Jason Mitchell’s tenure.
The agency is forming a dedicated team to work with large commercial customers, a department spokesperson wrote in an email.
Besides billing, though, there are problems further upstream.
Much of the water that comes through the city’s system never makes it to the faucet. In fiscal year 2022, the city classified more than a quarter of the drinking water in Baltimore City — meaning billions of gallons — as “non-revenue water,” meaning it was lost to leaks, breaks, open fire hydrants and other means.
Some of that “non-revenue water” is apparently winding up in the basement of the Fidelity Building, the office tower directly next door to One Charles Center.
The Fidelity Building is one of the few buildings downtown that survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Today, there is a small stream burbling from a brick wall on the north side of its basement.
Patrick Grace is the owner of Trademark Investments, which is currently converting that building into a residential tower. Grace’s general contractor estimated at least 10 gallons of water have been flowing into the basement every minute for at least the past six months — a total of at least 2.5 million gallons.
This leak could damage the structural integrity of his building, Grace said, and he’s been trying to get the city’s attention for months.
But public works officials didn’t respond until Grace reached out to Councilman Eric Costello, whose district covers downtown, the property owner said. This week, a Department of Public Works employee emailed back. The agency is working on the issue, he said, but struggling to find the source of the leak, which “is showing up a few stories below ground.”
Grace said he’s had other water problems in downtown Baltimore. Erratic water pressure caused a newly renovated apartment building at 6 S. Calvert St. to sit vacant for nine months, Grace said, costing him more than $100,000 in revenue.
If a similar issue happened at the much larger Fidelity Building, where Grace is planning more than 200 units, the losses would have reached into the millions, he said.
“It makes you pause,” Grace said. “Do I want to take on another one of these projects?”