Pastor: Baltimore's tax sales are a 'moral failure'

As a pastor, I'm tasked with the job of guiding my congregation on a moral and just path. But the truth is, we should all carry that mission, including our city officials. Like many people in Baltimore, I have fallen victim to what I see as one of our city’s biggest moral failures: the tax sale of a property — in my case, my church, which was left to us eight years ago by my mother, Geraldine James, the founding pastor.

In 2015, the church accrued an astronomical water bill for $6,961, and we entered into a payment plan with the Department of Public Works in the form of a large first deposit. We paid $2,600 and breathed a sigh of relief once we received written assurance from the city finance department that we’d be safe.

But we weren’t. A lien on our church — one we knew nothing about — was sold to an out-of-state LLC three years ago without notice or hearing. It took us two years just to find out why the lien was sold: We apparently had an outstanding environmental citation for $1,500 from 2013, related to a faulty security system. I was told that we should have been notified when making the arrangement for the water bill that there was another lien we needed to clear, but we never were.

The city falsely promised that we would be spared. Now I’ve been dealing with a grueling legal process for several years, and my only hope to save my church is a last-minute legal intervention.

Oftentimes, our city is unable to provide accurate information to help people keep their properties — a lifelong investment in most cases. It is an injustice to take properties with no accountability and unacceptable that our city doesn’t always know why they are issuing tax sale notices.

The city has also made countless mistakes. Officials added the Orioles and Ravens stadiums to the 2017 tax sale list over outstanding water bills, which were being contested and unresolved. They did this without regard to the “tax sale exemption” status of properties owned by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The Can Company was also placed on the list for two incorrect water bills that were sent to an incorrect address, resulting in $34,000 worth of legal fees that the city had to reimburse.

There is such gravity in what happens after a lien is sold on your property. I believe it shouldn’t happen at all. There must be a humane way to collect water bills without unsettling elderly, underserved citizens or already financially challenged community pillars.

Last legislative session, Del. Mary Washington championed legislation to correct this injustice. Her bill would have entirely removed water bills from tax sale in the city. I channeled my energy and my grief into advocating for this to ensure that others would not have to deal with this excruciating process of trying to save their property from a dysfunctional system. This transformative legislation was passed unanimously after amendment by the House of Delegates but failed in the Senate.

Instead, the Senate offered legislation that would essentially codify Mayor Catherine Pugh’s executive order related to tax sales. No homeowner-occupied properties with solely outstanding water bills will be added to the list for the 2019 tax sale. This is the legislation that passed.

But this does little to correct the wrongs caused to our community by tax sale. If a property owner has even one cent of overdue property taxes or environmental fines, they will still be sent to tax sale. There is no consideration for faith-based entities, or compassion while unaffordable, erroneous water bills proliferate. Change is a must.

Last month, the annual tax sale auction occurred online.

I continue to keep all the families and congregations whose liens were sold in my prayers. The tax sale process must be overhauled by policy change to protect our most vulnerable residents.

Recently, a circuit court judge granted a stay of the eviction for my church — 15 minutes before we were to be thrown out. We are awaiting a ruling on whether we can recover ownership. After three years, I am still fighting with the city that I love. It shouldn’t be this way.

Mark James is pastor of Barnes Memorial Church; his email is mrjame30@gmail.com.

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