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Baltimore DPW workers 'blindsided' by water meter outsourcing contract

Plan to fight rising water bill costs
Posted at 4:09 PM, Oct 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 17:19:12-04

BALTIMORE — Nearly 70 Baltimore city employees stand to lose their jobs as the city contracts a third party to handle water meter operations.

"I was making decent money to take care of my family, my bills. It wasn’t a struggle and to be honest, I enjoyed what I did," said Stephanie Stewart.

For 14 years, Stewart worked her way up the ranks of the Department of Public Works to a utility tech, repairing and install water meters and collect readings

"I felt like I got pretty good at it, you know, I picked up on it pretty fast," said Stewart.

So Stewart ad 67 of her colleagues were blindsided to find out their jobs would be outsourced.

"It was really disheartening to see someone you dedicated all these years to can just basically throw you away and blame you for something that’s really not your fault because we only did what we were trained to do," said Stewart.

Outgoing Mayor Jack Young announced a proposed contract with Itron to take over meter reading, installation, and maintenance in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

The city expects the deal would solve issues of ongoing inaccurate water bills and save $50 million over 5 years, by laying off 68 employees.

"The City Union of Baltimore will not be quiet as the mayor and his administration scapegoat hardworking city employees for questionable no-bid contracts and increase the number of Baltimoreans without a job in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic," said City Union of Baltimore President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson.

The union held a press conference Wednesday standing against this contract, saying it would cause more issues, citing the past.

Four years ago, Itron was contracted for $150 million to install automated meters intended to fix the issues but they have still persisted. Young said it shows the Department of Public Works Customer Service and Support Division cannot continue to sustain the current meter operations.

“Our customers deserve accurate and timely water bills,” said Young. “The fact that this continues to be an issue even after we invested in automated meters means that we must take further action to address the problem. Outsourcing meter reading and small meter installation and maintenance to a vendor with a wealth of expertise in this area will not only increase revenue but also reduce operational costs creating savings for our customers.”

But Ryan-Johnson said they believe it has nothing to do with city employees.

"Meter operations is not the problem. If the meters were working correctly, they would not have needed to be replaced multiple times over. This is a technology problem and now the city is looking to turn over the same operations of the water meter system to the same people who brought us the flawed water meter technology," said Ryan-Johnson.

The mayor’s office said they will work to try and place affected staff into new positions but it’s all based on availability and workers like Stewart are not optimistic.

"There’s not really anywhere to put 68 people in different departments," said Stewart.

The union also questions the legality of this contract, because in 2018, Baltimore City voters supported a ban on water privatization. However, the mayor’s office said this contract is legal because it’s privatizing a service to the utility.

Young said the $50 million in savings will be used to provide additional assistance to Baltimore City water customers in the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which has yet to implemented because of the State of Emergency.

The mayor’s office said the contract still needs to be approved by the Board of Estimates in November, but the decision to downsize does not.