Water bill woes

The Baltimore Sun

If you live in Baltimore and don't pay your water bill, you could lose your home - even if you're as little as $100 in arrears. That simply has to change.

A recent report in The Sun outlined the dire consequences of citizens' failure to pay water bills, and it prompted Mayor Sheila Dixon to suggest an amnesty program for those with burdensome bills. But ultimately it will take more than that to protect homeowners and at the same time ensure that the city isn't left holding the bag.

It will require changes in state law and reform of the convoluted system the city uses to collect some municipal bills. Sadly, a quick fix isn't likely.

As explained by Sun reporters June Arney and Fred Schulte, state and city laws govern this process, and they can work at cross-purposes. Some 400 Baltimore homes were lost to foreclosure in the past three years, half of which involved unpaid water and sewer bills of less than $500.

Although the city says it alerts property owners in several ways to outstanding bills, once the delinquent charges on a house exceed $100, the city has the right to include it in its annual sale of tax liens. State law sets that figure, far lower than the city's threshold for shutting off water, which is an unpaid bill of $500 or more. That is, at the least, backward.

When a tax lien is sold, property owners can really get into trouble. They have a deadline for paying the bill, but the longer they take, the more costly it becomes because of a series of stepped-up fees and costs. In one case, a homeowner's original delinquent water bill of $272.22 rose to $6,414.69 because of fees.

It turns out the owner of the lien can legally charge 18 percent or more in interest and assess fees in excess of $400 after six months. At the very least, both should be capped at a reasonable rate.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young's solution to the problem is to exclude delinquent water bills from the city's sale of tax liens. But it's not quite that simple: Officials worry that even more water bills would go unpaid, and they say the threat of foreclosure has been helpful in collection.

The Dixon administration is reviewing ways to best address this thorny issue; an amnesty program would help in the short term and save some residents from the city's May 14 tax sale.

But the scope of the problem requires a comprehensive solution that should include reforming the present system and reducing the exorbitant fees now permitted by law.

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