Pikesville condominium owners have reached a settlement with Baltimore County over wastewater billing that will reduce charges for a handful of owners. But condo owners say the county is still overcharging them for a service that county officials have acknowledged relies on a flawed billing system.
The agreement settles a Board of Appeals case brought last summer by more than 180 Annen Woods condominium owners, who say that for years they’ve been overcharged for sewer services due to an outdated billing system that doesn’t charge condominium residents for how much water they consume, unlike homeowners and most other property owners.
About half of Annen Woods condo owners — those who appealed their sewer charges on annual tax bills — will see their utility fees decrease by between $195 and $290 next year and in subsequent years, according to the condominium association. But the settlement doesn’t reduce wastewater fees for Annen Woods’ other residents, nor tens of thousands of additional county condominium owners.
“For 21,000 other condo owners in Baltimore County, Baltimore County is using them for a money grab — plain and simple,” said Phyllis Bloom, president of a section of the Annen Woods condominium complex. “It’s outrageous.”
Condo owners’ wastewater fees are based on the number and size of water-using fixtures that deliver service — a practice out of step with more than a half-dozen other comparable utilities, according to a previously undisclosed 2021 consultant report obtained by The Banner.
Per the agreement, Annen Woods residents who appealed their sewer fees will be charged lower sewer rates, which are set each year by executive order. They’ll pay the same rates as residents who have fewer water delivery fixtures, bringing their sewer charges more in line with what other homeowners pay.
But condo owners say the settlement still leaves them paying more than they should; the broader issue is fixture billing, which doesn’t account for condo owners’ actual water use for sewer service. Appellants wanted restitution for years of wastewater overage they’ve paid, but say the change will suffice in the interim before — they hope — Baltimore County overhauls its utility rates.
The consultant, Black & Veatch, found the county’s utility billing system is fraught with inconsistencies that risk inequitable water and sewer costs to ratepayers. The report urged the county to scrap its utility fees, but said the county lacks the “essential” data needed to ensure property owners are paying their fair share and balancing the system, which must remain revenue-neutral.
“I’m really frustrated by the whole thing — and angry that they’re treating us like this,” said Lucille Barrett, president of the association representing residents of Condos at The Ridge.
Barrett, who has lived in her two-bedroom, two-bathroom Owings Mills condominium for nearly two decades, said she, too, appealed her roughly $550 wastewater charges to the county Department of Public Works and Transportation in July 2021, but that she didn’t receive a response.
“We have many people here who are senior citizens — every penny of their income counts,” said Barrett, who said she stopped working in the mid-1960s. Barrett appealed her wastewater charges after comparing her 2021 bill to a single-family homeowner’s, who paid around $129 for sewer service the same year.
“I want to see the county make reparations,” she said. But, she added, to do so would disrupt fees for all ratepayers.
Baltimore County executives have frozen sewer charges for condo owners for the last four years as rates for other property owners have ticked up, which condo owners like Bloom see as an acknowledgement by officials that their rates are flawed. In four years, Annen Woods appellants estimate they’ve each been overcharged for wastewater by $4,300.
The County Council last month approved a $99,000 contract with Raftelis Inc. to review the utility billing system and recommend how to remediate inconsistencies — but Bloom and Barrett say the county has not provided information on efforts to resolve them.
County Councilman Izzy Patoka, who represents Pikesville, said Annen Woods residents make “a fair argument,” but added he hasn’t reviewed Black & Veatch’s recommendations.
Still, the second-term Democrat said, the billing disparity is “a pretty significant issue.”
“I want my constituents to feel that the [sewer] charges are fair; and if my constituents feel that they’re not being charged fairly, I am not comfortable with that,” Patoka said.
In a statement, county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said “the county is reviewing the billing methodology for all condominium unit owners and is in the process of that now. The results of any change to the methodology will affect all condominium unit owners.”
“The appeal and the review of the billing methodology, while related, are separate and distinct processes,” Palmisano wrote.
In a July 2021 email to a county councilman, Baltimore County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers admitted the sewer billing system is “problematic.” Still, she insisted the county had to go through the appeals process to resolve broader wastewater billing inequities.
Rogers and the county’s top lawyer signed a settlement agreement that Baltimore County “denies that such unequal or disparate treatment exists.”
During a January press conference announcing the prospect of a regional water authority in Annapolis, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said the “goal is to make this [utility billing] a modern, best-in-class utility structure that best serves our residents, that efficiently delivers the service — to make sure that the water is clean and safe to drink, make sure that we are, we have a system rooted in equity, that it’s affordable and attainable for our residents.”
Annen Woods representatives say they’ve been contacted by more than 1,400 county condo owners and 51 condo associations who were hoping the county would also reduce their charges.
Barrett plans to rouse her nearly 200 neighbors to file a joint appeal of their tax bills issued in July 2023. Residents of Condos at the Ridge have retained legal representation from Baltimore law firm Whiteford, Taylor and Preston.
Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.