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News Maryland Sun Investigates

City writes $1,105 check for rent it didn't owe

The Baltimore housing department recently tried to give away some money — $1,105 to be exact.

That was the amount of a check sent to retired lawyer Constance Putzel in June, with a notation that the city was paying her for ground rent she held on several city-owned parcels at Old Town Mall.

Except Putzel hasn't been entitled to any such payments since 2011. That year, the city paid her a lump sum of nearly $14,000 to extinguish Putzel's claim on the land under its property.

"It was a great surprise to me," Putzel said of the recent check's arrival.

What made it even odder to her was that she routinely had to press the city to pay up when she did own the ground rent. She's still got copies of overdue notices she sent in 2007and 2009.

So what happened? One arm of city government (the Baltimore Development Corp.) didn't tell another (the Department of Housing and Community Development) that the ground rent no longer existed, said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, whose office Putzel contacted for assistance.

Adding to the confusion, city records list different addresses for the same parcels, officials say.

Now Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore, wants to know if this was an isolated case or part of a larger problem.

"If we don't have accurate auditing, we're not going to fix these terrible, terrible errors," she said. "That's whether it's water bills or soon-to-be stormwater fees, money that is owed to people or isn't owed to people. It's got to be fixed."

City housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials think it's isolated but are "reviewing the details of this case and our protocols to ensure this does not happen again."

As for the $1,105 check, it's possible Putzel could have deposited it without anyone ever realizing. "I toyed with the idea, sure," she said. But she sent it back because "I'm basically an honest person."

scalvert@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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