Reversing a decision by his predecessor, Mayor Brandon Scott said today that Baltimore will not be laying off 60 water meter employees or outsourcing the operation to a third-party vendor.
Back in October, then-Council President Scott condemned Mayor Jack Young’s decision to lay off the employees as “a rushed plan to privatize a core function of DPW’s operation during a pandemic.”
Young said outsourcing meter work would increase the accuracy and timeliness of water bills that have drawn citizen complaints for years. Scott today said he will focus on overhauling operations at the shop and retraining workers.
“We will be investing in our employees and strengthening their knowledge and skill,” said Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark at a news conference outside the meter shop on Franklintown Road.
Garbark said the process will be handled by a task force headed by Stephen C. Stricklin, director of the mayor’s office of project management.
The city never signed a five-year, $13 million contract that was arranged between Young and Itron, a West Coast utilities management company, leaving the employees “in limbo for four months,” as Scott put it.
“That’s not how we treat our city employees,” said Scott, as Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, president of the City Union of Baltimore (CUB), stood nearby.
The task force will be “high functioning, outcome oriented and data-driven,” Garbark promised.
Less clear was the administration’s assessment of longstanding water billing problems, which include commercial customers with unpaid bills that sometimes amount to millions of dollars.
Until raised by a reporter, the city’s “smart meters,” which were described in a recent city-county Inspector Generals report as substandard and poorly installed by Itron, were not mentioned.
Asked why meter employees were not better trained and whether Itron meters would still be used by the city, Scott answered this way:
“You are not going to get from me a lot of pouring dirt on an administration that’s not here.”
He then turning the microphone over to Garbark, who said the Itron meters “are the first thing that we look at when we’re looking at billing issues.”
“And the way we have to go about improving this system – and it’s never been done to this level – we have to go issue by issue, peeling away certain issues to figure out where some of these problems lie,” he continued.
“We have to figure out that those meters are working correctly. So this is the first place to start,” he said. “And what we’re going to do is we’re going to train our workers to be able to troubleshoot, to find these issues and to fix them so that we know that at least that meter is not the problem.”