"My issue is not that the $500 is owed," Howard said. "If it's owed, fine. I'll pay it. My issue is the fees."

Howard went to court in October to dispute the fees that had accrued - particularly the $2,500 in attorneys fees.

She asked Burgunder, who represented 2005 Baltimore City LLC, to account for his expenses. Burgunder did not respond, saying he was waiting for a court ruling. Howard said she did not have the money to keep pursuing the matter and paid the $4,600 last November.

"I was fortunate enough to piecemeal this thing together," Howard said. "A lot of people are not that fortunate. It was just humiliating."

In many states, lawyers are not involved in the process. In Florida, counties handle their own tax sales - many far larger than in Maryland - without incurring large attorney fees.

Even some investors question whether Baltimore should be putting water bills and other small debts into the tax sale process.

Patricia Fletcher of Houston, who buys Baltimore tax liens, said she believes that Baltimore needs to adopt a different system. "It seems crooked that the city can foreclose on you for a water bill," she said.

Burgunder suggested that "raising the threshold to be included in the tax sale will protect some people who overlook a small bill."

Meanwhile, the number of people facing the prospect of foreclosure or costly lawsuits over small debts shows no sign of decline. Among the Baltimore liens sold last May were more than 750 on properties whose owners owed $500 or less for water and other municipal services, records show. Another set of liens is scheduled for auction May 14.

Said City Council member Young, "We've got a system that needs to be fixed."


How the story was reported

The Sun analyzed computerized records of nearly 90,000 liens offered for sale by Baltimore since May 2000. The data showed which property owners were cited for unpaid property taxes, water bills or other municipal fees, and identified the investors who bought the rights to collect the debts.

With property addresses as a common link, The Sun used computer software to connect those records with more than 10,000 lawsuits filed in City Circuit Court by lien buyers against homeowners during the past three years. Reporters reviewed dozens of those cases to establish patterns in attorney fees and other costs that defendants paid to keep their homes.

Reporters also reviewed 2006 lien sale records from several counties, which listed amounts of liens and the buyers.

Interviews with area officials, homeowners, lien buyers and others filled out the picture of a system for collecting public debts that has become a thriving business for a few private firms.

Tips for city residents

Baltimore homeowners can take steps to determine whether overlooked charges could lead to a lien on their properties.

Call 410-396-5398 and have your address or water and sewer account handy. To get information online, go to http:--cityservices.baltimorecity.gov/water. Go to http:--www.ci.baltimore.md.us/government/finance/payments.html to pay a water bill online.

To inquire about other services, such as alley or sidewalk improvements, call 410-396-6922.

To get information about the city's lien sale, including whether unpaid bills or taxes could put your property into the May lien sale, call 410-396-3987.

You can handle any of these matters in person at 200 Holliday St., Baltimore 21202. Office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Offices are closed April 6. From April 30 through May 9, the lien sale offices open at 7:30 a.m.