Mayor agrees to remove homes with estimated water bills from tax sale

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agreed Friday to stop seizing homes over unpaid water bills in cases where the bills were estimated, a practice that city officials say led to widespread inaccuracies.

The move is a compromise between Rawlings-Blake and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who had sought a comprehensive moratorium on home seizures over water bills after an audit showed serious problems with the accuracy of the city's bills. Rawlings-Blake and Young announced the deal Friday.

Young said in a statement that as part of the deal, he agreed to not pursue legislation seeking a complete moratorium. Rawlings-Blake said she couldn't agree to Young's initial proposal because her finance and law departments told her it could hurt the city's credit rating. The threat of a home being seized and sold at tax sale often prompts delinquent residents to pay, the administration says.

"We all agree that we need to improve billing accuracy and customer service right away, but I can't support a moratorium because our bond experts have warned that it could hurt the City's credit rating — which could hurt paying customers and make it even harder and more expensive to upgrade our water system," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

"Properties with estimated meter readings can be removed from the tax sale list, pending further contact and attempts to obtain an actual meter reading," the mayor said.

About 3,000 properties were initially flagged for tax sale in May for unpaid water bills, finance officials say. Owners have until the end of next month to bring their accounts current and avoid being included in the sale, officials said. Under the compromise, estimated accounts will be removed from the list pending a meter reading.

At a hearing this week, the finance department said there were now 2,300 properties up for tax sale due to water bills.  Of those, 163 had estimated bills.

The dispute between Rawlings-Blake and Young arose after the city auditor released a highly critical audit of the billing system. In response to the audit, the city is issuing $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 of the system's 410,000 customers.

Rawlings-Blake said the Department of Public Works has taken steps to confront the problem. The department says it has doubled its adjustment team and added 19 temporary employees to assist with additional meter reading while moving to triple call center staff.

The agency also recently added a new correspondence unit to quickly evaluate customer concerns and provide customer updates, according to the mayor's office.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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