Baltimore lawyer Jay A. Dackman in recent years has been among the city's most active lawyers in both tax sale and ground rent cases. Now, he says, the tax sale process has become little more than an excuse for attorneys to rack up fees, often at the expense of low-income homeowners. "I don't like what is going on," Dackman said. "It's just abusive now. There needs to be standards set again."

"Once you file suit, the sky's the limit," he said. "The problem with the hefty fees is, `Who's there to verify it?' It's not the way it's supposed to be. I'm not buying any more, ever. That's it. I'm done."

Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon, who is in charge of the civil docket for the city Circuit Court, was asked whether there has been enough oversight of cases, including legal expenses. The law leaves it up to the court to make sure fees are "reasonable."

"To say there has or has not been enough [oversight] means I would spend time researching what's been done," Cannon replied. "That would be a thesis."

Reporters sampled court files over several years and found judges rarely reduced the fees that attorneys demanded from homeowners seeking to keep their homes. There is no documentation in the files to support the amounts.

After two recent interviews, Cannon acted last week in eight cases to request more documentation from lawyers about their fees. During the interviews, she had insisted that any action she takes in court is not related to the newpaper's inquiries.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said he believes the legislature is at least partly to blame for the soaring fees.

He has introduced a bill to restore the $400 cap.

"Granted, these are people who haven't paid their property taxes or other liens, but still they're being taken advantage of. We need to change the law and bring about some fairness," Della said.

Bills also can include legal-advertising fees charged by The Sun and other newspapers, and various court and processing fees. "I honestly don't know how the courts can approve foreclosures with fees like this," Della said.

City and county officials send final bills to all property owners before placing their accounts in the tax sale. They also publish a list of these properties in newspapers and post delinquent billings on Web sites. Baltimore officials also send second warning letters over unpaid water bills.

But officials concede that in a city where ownership of property is often clouded and rentals abound, property owners might not find out about the debt until they are sued.

Michael A. McNeil, 50, said he had no idea he owed the city $298.77 for water use at his Belair-Edison home or that the debt had been sold at the May 2006 tax sale to Del Mar's Recap LLC, a firm for which Baltimore County attorney Heidi Kenny is the registered agent.

Four days before Christmas, McNeil learned that Kenny was filing suit against him to foreclose on his right to pay the debt, the first step in taking a home.

"If the water bill is so delinquent, why didn't they shut off the water and then I would have known about it?" McNeil asked. "They didn't ring the bell. I found something posted on the door. When I went down to the Municipal Building and tried to pay it, they said it was too late. It had been sold at tax sale."

McNeil, a disabled former mattress assembler, sought help from the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore. His lawyer, Skullney, seeks to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the complaint didn't specify the amount owed.

McNeil's tab now stands at about $3,000, he said in a recent interview. The interest grows daily.

Robin C. Howard paid $4,600 to get out from under a $265.89 water bill and a business license bill of $283.47 assessed against her late aunt, who cut hair in her home's basement. Howard said she didn't realize that any money was owed or that a lien had been sold in May 2005 to a company called 2005 Baltimore City LLC until almost a year later. Court documents show that a foreclosure document was posted on the house in January 2006, but Howard said she never saw it.

Veteran tax sale investor and attorney Harvey M. Nusbaum is the registered agent for 2005 Baltimore City LLC. It is among several firms tied to his family that have bought liens from Maryland municipalities. One of the firms, 2006 Baltimore City LLC, paid Baltimore about $2 million last year, placing it among the top three buyers of city liens.

Nusbaum, whose family members also own thousands of Baltimore ground rents, would not comment.