Tax sale timeout

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young came to an important accomodation Friday in their standoff about tax sales over unpaid water bills. The mayor was probably right that the two-year moratorium on tax sales Mr. Young had proposed endangered the city's bond rating, but Mr. Young was right to stand firm on the principle that no one should risk losing a home based on an estimated water bill. Now the mayor has agreed to send to tax sale only properties for which the unpaid bills are based on acutal meter readings, and that is progress. But given how badly the city has failed in its duty to provide accurate, timely bills and a workable process for customers to resolve disputes, more needs to be done.

The Department of Public Works' explanation of how it handles disputed bills and tax liens sounds straightforward. A customer calls to report a billing issue. The department makes a record of that and sends out an inspector, who determines whether the meter is broken or if the bill is otherwise somehow in error. If so, the meter is fixed and the bill is adjusted. If not, the meter is read and the customer is sent an updated bill. The city says tax liens only come into play if a customer has an outstanding bill of at least $350, has made no payments for three quarters, has failed to enter into a payment plan or seek assistance, and has not contacted the department at all for more than a year.

That would all sound reasonable — generous even — if the problems with billing and customer service were isolated incidents. But they're not. Last year, City Auditor Robert L. McCarty released a report examining bills for 70,000 households over the previous three years. His staff found that 65,000 were likely overcharged, and the vast majority of those showed no signs of having been adjusted. The department eventually issued refunds totaling nearly $4.3 million. Mr. McCarty also reported that a third of homes that had received new meters from 2008-2010 had gotten no bills at all. Some homes with the older meters got bills based on estimates, not actual readings, for years on end. What's worse, 57 of the 810 homes that went to tax sale in 2010 had bills based on estimates alone.

Moreover, customers have reported widespread frustration in their attempts to contact the department to resolve billing disputes. They have told Sun reporters and City Council members that they have experienced long hold times, conflicting advice from different Department of Public Works employees and endless run-arounds in their efforts to find out what they really owe. In light of that, and of the department's well-documented problems in sending out accurate bills, it's hard to accept Mayor Rawlings-Blake's confidence that the people whose properties are headed to tax sale never tried to straighten out their accounts. How can she be so sure?

The department has beefed up its staff of meter readers and customer service representatives, and that's a very positive step. So is a longer-term plan to replace all of the meters in the system to help ensure accurate bills. But that doesn't change the fact that hundreds of Baltimore residents are now at risk of losing their homes based on a fundamentally flawed billing system. It's galling that no one has lost her job over this debacle and that the mayor has not sought stronger reforms to the tax sale process. We can only imagine that if the utility we were talking about was BG&E instead of the Baltimore City Bureau of Water and Wastewater, Ms. Rawlings-Blake would be up in arms.

The city need not completely eliminate tax liens as a tool, but it should find ways to employ them far less frequently. Promising that no properties go to tax sale based on estimated water readings is a good start. A delay of this year's tax sale to allow people to make use of the Department of Public Works' recently beefed-up customer service operation would also seem reasonable. And whenever possible, the city should shut off water service to get people to pay their bills rather than sending the matter to tax sale, which at the very least results in hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees for homeowners.

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