Baltimore’s public housing authority denied a Tuesday report from a city watchdog finding the agency owes millions to the city in past-due water bills.
According to findings released by the Office of the Inspector General, the account balance for the federally funded Housing Authority of Baltimore City has fluctuated widely over the last three years, dipping as low as $6 million and reaching as high as $16 million, with the vast majority of the amount owed coming from delinquent bills. As of June of this year, the housing authority owed approximately $7.9 million in water bills to the city, the report found.
This massive balance has accrued because the housing authority has only been making partial payments on the Department of Public Works’ total bill, staff from both the housing authority and the Department of Public Works told the inspector general’s office. Housing authority officials told investigators that they have only been paying their current charges, not clearing the outstanding bill, because they have received “insufficient explanation” from the public works department for large variations in their total account balance.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the housing authority called the reported balance “completely inaccurate” and said the agency is up to date on past-due bills, instead highlighting recommendations from the inspector general that the public works department remedies discrepancies in its billing reports.
“It is important to know that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) has always and continues to pay the Department of Public Works (DPW) for water services,” spokeswoman Ingrid Antonio said. “HABC consistently works with DPW to verify bills, which includes credits and debits. We will continue work with DPW to correct any erroneous past due balances.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works did not directly respond to a question about the possibility that the $7.9 million figure is incorrect, and a letter from the agency included in the inspector general’s report didn’t challenge the reported amount owed. A day after the report’s release, public works spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said the department “continues to meet regularly” with the housing authority to address billing matters and is in the process of an audit “to identify the full extent of the issues.”
Beyond the housing authority, the new report notes an astounding volume of delinquent bills among all city water customers. In May, the public works department’s internal billing system reported delinquent payments across all accounts totaled more than $319 million, according to data provided to the inspector general’s office. The agency, meanwhile, has just one staffer tasked with overseeing consolidated water billing accounts, according to the report.
The housing authority’s delinquent bill seems to have been known to the public works department prior to the inspector general’s investigation. According to the report, the housing authority has already entered into a settlement with the city to clear a delinquent balance at Perkins Homes, the public housing complex being redeveloped east of the Inner Harbor. Under that agreement, reached in February, the housing authority paid $764,000 while the city “abated” the remainder of a $2.6 million bill, the report said.
A day after the report, housing authority CEO Janet Abraham responded in a letter calling the city’s account balance “wildly inaccurate” and arguing that the inspector general did not give her agency proper chance to provide its own data. Though a housing authority staff member was contacted by the inspector general’s office, Abrahams wrote that her agency’s records were not included in the investigation, calling on the watchdog to update its report.
According to the housing authority’s records, the agency has paid the Department of Public Works more than $50 million in water bills since 2017, while also uncovering numerous inaccurate billings, Abrahams wrote. Attached to her letter, the housing authority CEO included the agency’s own record of its water bills, which show an account balance of just over one million dollars. Nearly half of that is disputed charges tied to the demolished Perkins Homes, leaving a remaining balance of $533,216, according to housing authority records.
Baltimore’s public works department — which provides drinking water to about 1.8 million customers in the city and surrounding region — has been plagued by problems with its water billing for years, with high-profile episodes involving millions of dollars in both overcharges and undercharges. The report catalogues discrepancies between public city data on delinquent water bills and the figures reported in the internal Department of Public Works system. The lone public works staffer tasked with overseeing large water accounts told the inspector general’s office that the internal system, which indicates the housing authority owes $7.9 million, is the accurate source.
A recent audit into the city’s management of federal funds, presented at last week’s spending board meeting, also highlighted problems with the department’s water billing. It noted that, as of the 2022 fiscal year, a significant number of accounts have not been billed since implementation of the system in 2017, while others had been billed inconsistently.
While the department has encountered interruptions to its billing service in recent years due to the pandemic and the 2019 ransomware attack on City Hall, the public works employee said the housing authority’s bill has ballooned due to its record of making only partial payments.
In her office’s report, Inspector General Isabel Cumming recommended that the public works department and housing authority consult with city attorneys to settle the outstanding balance and formulate plans for managing delinquent bills in the future. The report also notes that that the public works department is in the process of forming a debt collection team to begin resolving other delinquent account problems.
Public Works Interim Director Richard Luna said in the agency’s response letter that the housing authority would be meeting with public works attorneys on Monday, a day before the report’s release, to discuss a potential settlement agreement over the outstanding water bills. Additionally, Luna notes that the agency had scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 12, to begin investigating discrepancies between the delinquent bills listed in its internal system versus public, Department of Finance numbers.
The report also notes a large discrepancy between the 7,000 total properties the housing authority manages in Baltimore and the approximately 1,200 included on the public works department account for the agency. Luna told the inspector general his department is beginning an audit of all housing authority properties in its water billing system, scheduled for completion in December.