Baltimore's clerk of the Circuit Court announced plans Monday for a class action lawsuit to force the city to collect delinquent water bills from businesses and other large customers.

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway cited a Baltimore Sun report that counted more than $10 million owed by corporations, nonprofits and government offices. The figure included RG Steel in Sparrows Point, which owed nearly $7 million, according to city records; W.R. Grace & Co., which owed almost $500,000; and the Maryland Zoo, which owed more than $135,000.

Conaway called the city's failure to collect the money, as it was moving to take the homes of private residents who owed far less, "unconscionable and inexcusable."

"Hundreds of city homeowners have lost their homes because of $300 or $400 delinquent bills directly because of the aggressive actions by the city to collect revenues, yet the city without any excuses or plausible explanations allows certain corporations and nonprofits to squander millions of taxpayers' dollars in delinquent water bills," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city's departments of finance and public works work "very hard to collect from delinquent accounts."

"Obviously, the largest amount involved a very complex bankruptcy transaction," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said, referring to RG Steel. "The law department's working very aggressively to make sure that we're doing everything we can to retrieve what is owed."

Conaway released a letter asking Finance Director Harry E. Black for the names and addresses of homeowners who are more than 90 days delinquent on their water bills "who have been adversely affected as opposed to those that have been allowed to delay payments."

"If the Mayor and City Solicitor cannot do their jobs collecting delinquent revenues, and funding recreation centers, fire stations and essential services, then the citizens of Baltimore and the courts simply will have to do their jobs for them," the letter said.

O'Doherty said the mayor's office would "take a close look" at Conaway's letter and respond to him directly.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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