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City Council asks to halt liens over unpaid water bills

The Baltimore City Council unanimously approved a resolution Monday calling on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration to order a halt to the practice of placing liens against homes with unpaid water bills.

"This is not to say that people shouldn't pay their bills," said Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. But he added, "The department's audit presented a lot of troubling things. We can't take the chance that these bills are inaccurate."

The resolution comes after a city audit showed that tens of thousands of households in the city and Baltimore County received incorrect water bills. The public works department is issuing more than $4.2 million in refunds to address the inaccuracies.

Young and Councilman Carl Stokes, who introduced the resolution, are seeking a two-year moratorium on tax sales of properties over unpaid water and sewer bills until the city can "demonstrate to the council that a viable and fair system of billing is in place for the Bureau of Water and Wastewater."

The resolution was approved by all council members present at Monday's meeting, Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young said. Councilwoman Helen Holton did not attend.

The resolution does not carry the force of law. Davis said Young plans to introduce an ordinance later this month that would require the department to abide by a moratorium.

The Rawlings-Blake administration opposes the moratorium; a mayoral spokesman referred questions to a public works spokeswoman.

Public works spokeswoman Celest Amato said tax sales were sought only for customers who had racked up more than $350 in debt and had not contacted the city for more than a year.

"Providing enforcement amnesty to thousands of property owners who fail to make any effort to pay long-overdue water bills is not an appropriate response to billing errors," Amato said in an email. "It is unfair to ask the rest of the ratepayers to carry property owners who fail to pay for water service."

Amato said her agency offers payment plans and other aid for those who have problems paying their bills.

City auditors reviewed the water bills after years of complaints from some residents and City Council members about inaccurate or inflated bills. The auditors examined 70,000 accounts that had been flagged for possible mistakes and found that 65,000 of those had likely been overbilled.

Public works officials completed their own review of the 70,000 accounts and found that 38,000 had been incorrectly billed.

The audit, conducted at the request of Comptroller Joan Pratt's office, also found that nearly one-third of homes with new meters had not received any bills over the three years. Moreover, 57 homes that were included in the city's tax sale because of unpaid water bills had bills that were based on estimates, not meter readings.

"DPW acknowledges that its existing billing process will continue to produce these errors, and cannot be fixed, until many water meters and the current systems are replaced — a transition that DPW believes may take 3 to 4 years," the resolution states. "During that time hundreds, or potentially thousands, of Baltimore residents could face foreclosure as the result of erroneous bills or unverified estimates of their water usage. That is simply not an acceptable scenario."

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