Baltimore lawmakers seek to ban city from placing liens against properties over water debt

Two Baltimore lawmakers said Monday that they will introduce legislation in this General Assembly session to permanently ban the city from placing liens against homes, churches and other properties over unpaid water bills.

Community advocates and church groups have called on the city to end the process, which can send about 1,000 properties a year to tax sale for water debt, including some churches, The Baltimore Sun has reported.

Owner-occupied homes can go to tax sale if they have at least $750 in unpaid water bills that are at least nine months late. At tax sale, investors can buy that debt from the city — important revenue for a cash-strapped City Hall — and can then foreclose if homeowners don’t pay.

State Sen. Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby, both Democrats, cited rising water rates and erroneous bills in announcing their legislation.

“It forever removes water from the tax lien process,” Washington said of her bill.

Standing at St. John Alpha Omega Pentecostal Church in West Baltimore, Washington talked about residents in her district who are struggling to pay what she called exorbitant bills.

She noted other large jurisdictions in Maryland do not threaten to take homes or properties over water debt.

“If selling homes for water bills doesn’t make sense in Montgomery County or Prince George’s County ... then it certainly does not make sense to do this in Baltimore City,” Washington said. “Let’s join our neighbors to the south and end in 2019 this horrible practice.”

The House of Delegates last year unanimously passed legislation sponsored by Washington to ban such sales. But the state Senate passed a weaker version of the legislation, which applied only to homes for one year. In a compromise, the House agreed to the back the weaker bill, which Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has said she would put a stop to such lien sales for owner-occupied homes. James Bentley, a spokesman for Pugh, said Monday she had not yet seen the legislation and therefore couldn’t comment.

“We do not have a position at this time,” he said in an email.

Mosby said he hoped the mayor would support the latest version of the legislation.

“We’re speaking up for the residents,” he said. “We’re speaking up for the churches. … We hope our colleagues will get behind this. Our most vulnerable population is disproportionately impacted by this.”

Washington and Mosby were joined by City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, who said she will introduce a council resolution in support of the legislation; the Rev. Alvin Gwynn, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, and Rianna Eckel, the Maryland organizer for Food & Water Watch.

The legislation comes as Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Pugh, is set to vote Wednesday to hike water rates by more than 9 percent for the next three years. The city, citing costly but necessary improvements to its aging water and sewer systems, has regularly raised rates in recent years, to the point that residents pay double what they did nine years ago.

Baltimore also has struggled to bill accurately for water use for years. In 2012, the city had to refund about $9 million after overcharging residential and business customers. It switched to a new billing system, but some problems continued. Earlier this year, for example, hundreds of customers received bills of more than $50,000, which city officials attributed to a software upgrade.

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