Here’s why your Baltimore water bill receipt may have gone to spam

Published 10/27/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 12/2/2022 2:55 p.m. EST

Photo collage of water meter cut in half by warning message that says "Pardon our Progress."

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People who go to pay their water bills and other city fees through Baltimore’s new electronic bill payment service are being met with a warning: “PARDON OUR PROGRESS.”

The city switched vendors for its online payment system earlier this year, and the site launched Oct. 1. But as the warning indicates, the system appears to still be finding its footing, prompting questions from customers and at least one city lawmaker about how the new vendor is performing.

It’s a high-stakes role for the new vendor, tasked with smoothing out a system long plagued by user complaints and irregularities. Those familiar with the product said the early glitches in the system threaten to further erode trust in the water billing system.

Already, the new provider and the city’s information technology department have had to correct how the system sends receipts to payers after customers reported problems with emails going to their spam folders, Department of Public Works spokesman James Bentley II confirmed. And experts in local government cybersecurity said the new platform — which still lists itself as in its earliest product phase, according to the payment website — doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Tensions among the new vendor, the previous vendor and city officials may be partially to blame: Several people involved in onboarding the new vendor, Paymentus, said the company had a truncated transition period and little help from the previous vendor, ACI Payments, which sued the city’s spending board in March over what it described as a noncompetitive bidding process.

“With any mission-critical system, you certainly want to have a smooth and seamless transition; it doesn’t do the citizens any good if you have to deal with any hiccups or snafus,” said Richard Forno, assistant director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Center for Cybersecurity. “The product version, on its face, suggests that it’s not ready for release. I would never rely on a product that had that versioning. It raises concerns, certainly.”

Bentley, speaking on behalf of the city’s information technology department, said the product’s versioning has no impact on the security, accuracy or performance of the system. He said Paymentus serves more than 1,000 clients and its quality is not up for debate.

As city officials attempt to modernize how the local government operates, agency and departmental spokespeople have reported experiencing “learning curves” as new processes and products get off the ground. Meanwhile, the person ushering in many of the changes, Baltimore City Administrator Chris Shorter, is poised to leave the city near the end of the year to take over as county executive in Prince William County, Virginia. He’s part of a string of high-profile departures from city government.

Shorter, when onboarded, immediately launched himself into the task of fixing some of the city’s intractable problems, including how the city collects and processes water bills, which have commonly been recorded incorrectly and unreliably. Earlier this month, Wes Moore, the Democratic nominee in the Maryland governor’s race, paid a more than $21,000 city water bill “out of an abundance of caution” after the Baltimore Brew and other outlets reported on how much online water records showed that he owed. The Moore campaign has not answered why the bill got so high.

Other community members told The Baltimore Banner that they have been charged exorbitant amounts for their water bills without explanation, and several readers have flagged problems with the process that charges them. And in a city that is no stranger to disrupted or irregular constituent services, pressure has been mounting on Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to correct course.

Questions about the new system comes as attacks on local governments’ cyber infrastructure become more common. Baltimore endured a ransomware attack in 2019, costing the city millions of dollars and sending officials into a monthslong scramble to rebuild.

“Knowing the history of Baltimore and the ransomware issue, it’s important for us to have a formal evaluation of any software,” said Baltimore City Council President Nick J. Mosby in an interview. “This is a clear example of something that was not competitively bid. … And when you do that, and particularly talking about software, you open yourself up for problems, you also do not drive best in class price and potentially best in class service.”

Mosby, who oversees the city’s spending board and has one vote, voted against the Paymentus contract in March, which passed 4 to 1. The other spending board members are Scott; Comptroller Bill Henry; Department of Public Works Director Jason W. Mitchell; and City Solicitor Jim Shea.

Henry said that while he understands the City Council president’s concerns and shares them, he voted in favor of the Paymentus bid because the company offered a better price than ACI and offered to do more.

“‘We’ll build the plane as we fly it’ is worth it for the vast majority of people to have a better experience and more capability for electronic payments, even with the understanding that a percentage of people would have problems,” Henry said. “I voted in favor because the pros outweigh the cons. This is a chronic struggle, though: Where do we draw the line in protecting the process, at the cost of denying people good service?”

Bentley said Paymentus specifically was chosen for its best-in-class services and for its ability to provide more security, more payment options — including Venmo and PayPal — and better customer service. He pointed to a report from research firm Aite-Novarica that awarded Paymentus top marks in a comparative assessment of nine electronic bill payment systems.

The new customer portal contains slightly more than two dozen functions, including paying water bills, personal and real property taxes, parking garage and lot taxes, as well as permitting and licensing fees. It is designed to be more efficient, secure and easier for consumers to use and will be complemented with walk-in service locations in city neighborhoods starting in December, Bentley said. He added that Paymentus adheres to industry standards around security and privacy and residents can be assured their data is protected.

“Baltimore, like other cities, chose Paymentus because it offers better protection than other systems,” Bentley said in an email. “Some cities, like Aurora, Colorado, selected Paymentus because they had used payment systems that were vulnerable to attack.”

City officials did not respond to questions about the litigation. But Steve Sorett, senior counsel at the Washington, D.C., office of the Kutak Rock legal firm, who is representing former vendor, ACI Payments, said the company is opting to stop the case from proceeding further.

Still, Sorett said concerns linger about the city’s procurement process and about the precedent that might have been set for other software or technology vendors who do business with Baltimore. Officials characterized the Paymentus contract as a “professional service,” Sorett said, which generally is reserved for consultants or for “mental or intellectual” services.

“As the world moves more toward artificial intelligence, you could say any contract could be characterized as a professional service and it sets a terrible precedent,” said Sorett, who specializes in government contracts. “The mayor and his team decided to sneak this in on a sole-source basis without giving us a chance to compete. We feel strongly this is an abuse of the process.”

The Paymentus contract, which was approved in March after being deferred at the Board of Estimates over several weeks, was worth more than $96,000. The agreement runs through 2029.

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