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A Howard County (Mary.) advisory board heard complaints from activists and community residents about unmetered water billing practices in local apartment complexes.
Residents said the practice, known as Ratio Utility Billing System, or RUBS, is unfair because apartment-dwellers are charged based on monthly estimates of how much water they use rather than measurements of their use.
Critics say the estimated billing forces people who conserve water to shoulder some of the costs incurred by neighbors who do not. Passing these water costs along to tenants leaves landlords with little incentive to fix leaks or other plumbing problems that waste water, which is of particular concern during drought conditions.
"It's just an excuse to make money. You need to outlaw this," said Erin Gilland Roby, who moved from her apartment in the Chimneys of Cradle Rock in Owen Brown about a year ago because of her $10 monthly water bill.
Howard county officials say that an average family of four living in a detached home typically pays about half that amount - a little more than $62 every three months.
To arrive at the estimates, landlords take an apartment complex's total water and sewer cost and divide it using a formula that might be based on the number of residents, square footage or bedrooms in a unit.
Landlords say the alternative - installing meters - would be too expensive, in some cases because doing so would require significant plumbing alterations.
Board members are holding the public meetings as part of their research for a report they are preparing for the County Council on what might be done about unmetered billing in the county.
The report, which is due by Dec. 1, could recommend that the council adopt legislation to regulate the estimated billing practice, which is not addressed by current law in Howard County or Maryland.
RUBS are outlawed or regulated in several other jurisdictions, among them some in Florida, Oregon and Texas.
The meeting was the first of four scheduled hearings, and board members said they are not sure what their recommendation will be. But yesterday was the first time the board heard public testimony and some board members said they were surprised by the public input, especially because only Howard County managers were scheduled to speak at the meeting.
"It certainly demonstrates that there's a big public concern and that this has the potential to be a real hot-button topic," said board member William C. Woodcock Jr.
In addition to the financial strain of the bills, residents said, they were particularly concerned because their bills do not detail the charges.
"It's extremely unfair," said Kate Burton, a former resident of the Reflections Apartment Homes in Columbia.
Burton did not pay water bills because she thought they were not correctly addressed in her lease. She was taken to court three times by Reflections management before being evicted this month.
Bill Temmink, a program manager with Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., a nonprofit tenants rights group, said he receives about 200 complaints a year about water billing in apartments, and said that Howard County should regulate the practice.
Temmink suggested that the county require landlords and billing agencies that administer RUBS to provide residents with sample bills so they will know what to expect. He also said that residents should have the right to see what they are being charged for, and that they should not be charged for court fees during billing disputes.