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As Baltimore County homeowners dispute high sewer bills, councilman says officials need to address issues

A leaky pipe that Bryant Oden got fixed in 2017 is still causing headaches today: The mortgage payment on his Windsor Mill home jumped by $750 a month.

The leak led to a Baltimore County sewer service charge of $4,435, more than 10 times what he was charged the previous year. That fee was part of his annual property tax bill the county sent in July — and his mortgage company paid it, wiping out his escrow account.

Oden didn’t realize that until the mortgage company adjusted his payments in December. By then, it was too late to appeal the county bill.

“It has been a horrible experience for me and my wife,” said Oden, 53, a lieutenant with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. “I wouldn’t want any other county resident to go through what we had to go through.”

About 230,000 county households get water from Baltimore’s system. While the city handles water billing for properties located in the county, the county administers sewer service fees. The county calculates the sewer charges based on the prior year’s water consumption. But even when the city adjusts a person’s water bill because of a leak or meter errors — as the city did for Oden — the county doesn’t automatically follow suit.

Susan Karasinski’s dispute has dragged on for three years. After being charged $11,558 for sewer service in the summer of 2016, Karasinski took her case to the county Board of Appeals, which concluded that her water meter malfunctioned and ruled in her favor. But the county appealed to the Circuit Court and then the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and Karasinski still hasn’t received a refund.

“I feel like David and Goliath, and I’m getting nowhere,” said Karasinski, a 63-year-old retired federal worker who said she had to pay the sewer fee or risk a tax sale on the Dundalk rowhouse where she raised her children.

Councilman Julian Jones said the county needs to examine the way it handles disputes over sewer fees. After hearing stories like that of Oden, his constituent, Jones sponsored legislation that extends the time residents have to appeal a disputed sewer fee, from 90 days to 240 days.

The measure, approved by the County Council this month, also requires the county Department of Public Works to report annually to the council how many appeals it receives and the outcome of those appeals.

Jones said he worries that residents could be in danger of losing their homes if they can’t pay their increased mortgage bills resulting from disputed sewer charges. At a recent council meeting, one woman testified that she was facing foreclosure over a $28,000 sewer bill.

“I want to make sure that we are making just decisions that are fair to the citizens of Baltimore County,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. “We’re trying to figure out how big a problem it is. For me, one person is too many.”

County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers, who recently started on the job, told the council she wants to undertake a review of county business practices, including sewer billing.

After the county sent last year’s tax bills, the Department of Public Works received 168 appeals for sewer charges, officials said. The agency doesn’t track how many it granted or denied.

Errors plagued Baltimore’s water billing system in recent years, with some residents receiving bills for tens of thousands of dollars. In 2017, the city began using a new meter system designed to improve accuracy.

The same year, some county residents complained about inaccurate sewer charges. Unsure of data from the city’s new meters, county officials said they estimated bills based on past usage.

County Public Works Director Steve Walsh said that even though the county bases its billing on water usage, it doesn’t base its decisions on whether the city adjusted a bill.

“If the water was used and it went down our sewer, then there’s costs associated with that use of the sewer system, and that’s what were trying to capture,” Walsh said.

The county’s Board of Appeals touched on the inherent tension in these cases in a 2017 opinion about a billing dispute in Towson.

“The property owners see the two allied governmental units taking inconsistent positions, an obvious source of irritation and frustration,” a three-member panel of the board wrote.

Walsh said the number of appeals is small compared to the county’s hundreds of thousands of accounts. He said the department has worked to improve areas such as communication, but “we think we do a pretty good job customer servicewise.”

“We follow the rules and try to do the right thing,” he said.

But the experience of trying to resolve billing disputes left homeowners frustrated.

Oden said that because he missed the 90-day window to appeal, he got nowhere with county government until he contacted Jones, whom he knew personally. Eventually, Jones helped him get the bill lowered, but it was too late to reduce his mortgage payment.

After Oden testified at a County Council session this month, a county official contacted him to say the county refunded the mortgage company, he said. He’s now waiting for the company to readjust his escrow payments.

Lutherville resident Jim Fisher, 51, called his experience trying to straighten out a sewer bill after a leak “an odyssey.”

When he saw a withdrawal from his escrow account of more than $4,700 last July, he thought it was for property taxes. Usually his taxes are paid twice a year through the account, but he figured the taxes were being paid all at once. But in December, he saw another withdrawal of the same amount. By the time Fisher understood that the extra charges were due to an increased sewer fee, the county’s 90-day appeals period had passed.

His mortgage increased by $1,000 a month. Fisher eventually sought the help of his councilman, Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat. Days after Fisher testified before the County Council this month, he received a message from the county saying it lowered his bill from $4,771 to $467.

In Karasinski’s case, a plumber found no leaks. When she received the $11,558 sewer bill, Karasinski and her husband, a disabled Vietnam veteran, were renting out the home because they had moved to a wheelchair-accessible ranch home nearby.

Karasinski said the city eventually adjusted her water bill, which was nearly $4,000.

But the county didn’t lower her sewer fee. In a 2016 letter responding to Karasinski’s request for an fee reduction, Walsh wrote that the county’s review found that “the water was consumed and discharged to the county’s sewer system.”

In 2017, the county Board of Appeals ordered the county to refund Karasinski, saying it was an “overarching and incontrovertible fact” that her water meter was malfunctioning. The county appealed the decision to Baltimore County Circuit Court, which last year ruled that there was “substantial evidence to support the board’s findings and conclusions.”

Again, the county appealed. Now, the case is set to be heard by the Court of Special Appeals in June, said Karasinski’s attorney, Justin A. Wallace.

T.J. Smith, a spokesman for Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Karasinski said she’s paid more than $6,000 in attorney’s fees since the case began. She questioned why the county has repeatedly appealed.

“The city was very reasonable to me, and the county was not,” Karasinski said. “They’re wasting the taxpayer money by prolonging this.”

alisonk@baltsun.com

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