East Baltimore resident Evelyn Anderson may have her house sold against her wishes in a tax sale because of an atypical water bill of $1,300 that she was unable to pay. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
Dawn Tucker thought about the ways she could spend her tax refund — paying down debt or stashing it in her savings — but decided she would spend $1,300 to save the home of a Baltimore woman she never met.
Tucker, of Severn, stepped forward this week to pay Evelyn Anderson's overdue water bill and stop the city from selling her home to collect the debt. Tucker said she was tired of learning about the hardships of others and doing nothing to help.
"This just hit me," said Tucker, a government analyst. "I was like, 'No. I have to do something for this woman. She is not going to lose her home.'"
Tucker was one of several people who offered to pay Anderson's bill and got the job done first. One donor is instead contributing to a future bill, while others have been directed to other people who need help.
The city Department of Public Works has come under fire for changes to its water billing dispute procedures. Advocacy groups decried the change as a loss of due process, but the department says its new policies create a better, more consistent way for customers to appeal water bills. Anderson was featured a recent Baltimore Sun article on the situation.
Christina Ochoa, a staff attorney at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, said the organization — which assists struggling Baltimoreans — wants to arrange meetings about water bill appeals with other advocates and city officials, including those in the public works and law departments. She said St. Ambrose also is considering legal action.
"We need to find out what steps we're going to take legally against DPW if there isn't a new process established," she said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Robert Stokes Sr. on Monday will call for an investigative hearing on the new water billing system and concerns raised by customers about unusually high bills, missing bills and the process to contest bills. They also want to investigate water affordability issues.
Customers used to be able to challenge a water bill by scheduling an informal conference with public works officials. As part of sweeping changes at the agency, the conferences were eliminated in October. Now, customers appealing bills can trigger an administrative review using a complaint form.
Public works officials said the new administrative review process is "clear, consistent, transparent and in line with industry standards."
"Any customer who is dissatisfied with the administrative review process or the director's decision may pursue further remedies as they see fit," agency spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said.
Customers can now access a website that shows their water usage hour by hour. The billing system can also send customers alerts when their usage spikes.
The department has added more customer service representatives, is sending bills monthly instead of quarterly and is spending $160 million for new meters and other upgrades. Customers may call, email or visit the department in person to discuss their bills.
Officials say most high bills are due to leaks inside the house, such as from dripping faucets and malfunctioning toilets. When bills are disputed, the agency takes several steps, including researching the account, performing inspections, testing the meter and looking at historic consumption and daily usage.
The agency will make adjustments in some instances — for example, if a customer's usage is high because of an underground leak, or if an elderly person left water running and did not hear it for an extended period of time.
Ochoa, and other local nonprofit lawyers, argue that the agency's history of billing problems leaves them lacking confidence in its ability to accurately bill customers. With fewer remedies available to challenge the bills, the attorneys say, customers could lose their houses to a tax sale over water bills inflated by leaks, faulty meter readings or unexplained spikes in usage.
Advocates are also concerned by the timing: Warning notices were sent in February, and the tax sale is in May.
Last year, more than 315 owner-occupied properties were sent to tax sale over unpaid water bills. Legislation before the Maryland General Assembly would block that practice. The first hearing for that measure was last week.
Ochoa said the public works department should put a hold on tax sales related to disputed water bills.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said public works officials should take less aggressive action, at least until the new system has a proven track record. She also believes the agency should reinstate the informal conferences.
"I would rather see that re-established than a bunch of lawsuits that don't solve the problem and cost a lot of money," Clarke said. "We need the due process that we used to have."
Ochoa said another woman, besides Tucker, paid money toward Anderson's bill. She expects that contribution to show up as a $1,000 credit to cover Anderson's future bills. At least two people mailed checks to St. Ambrose to help other clients who may be in a similar situation.
"It's wonderful that Evelyn is set for now," Ochoa said. "Now, we need to address the larger issue."
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Sharon McNeill of Randallstown said she saw Anderson's face looking up from the pages of a newspaper article, fearful of losing her home, and was compelled to help. McNeill, a nurse, said she also was worried about the physical toll of the ordeal on Anderson, 70, who has a heart condition.
"It is a disgrace to treat the elderly the way we do in this country," McNeill said. "If that was my mom, I would be outraged. It is the most I can do since I just lost my mom in June."
Anderson, who bought her house in East Baltimore in 1975, said the outpouring of help was overwhelming. She said she spent months going back and forth with the agency. A plumber told her she has no leaks in the house, but public works officials maintain she does.
"It's wonderful," she said. "I was really shocked. When I heard about it I said, 'Lord have mercy. God answered my prayer.' I am still shaking."