On Nov. 6, The Baltimore Sun published an op-ed written by Rudy Chow, director of Baltimore's Department of Public Works, defending the city's water turnoff policies. As leaders of the Baltimore Tax Sale Prevention Work Group with members who have worked with hundreds of residential clients this year faced with losing their water, we are troubled by a number of issues mentioned in his article.
Mr. Chow clearly presented a case for why the city is turning off water service and the results of these efforts. He asserts that it is necessary to have a system where everyone pays "their fair share." We question if a fair system is also a just system. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." We believe Mr. Chow's "fair" system does not account for the Baltimore community's most vulnerable residents. One senior whose water was turned off and whose property was at risk because of tax sale recently stated, "If you help me get out of tax sale I'll be fine. I don't need water and can't afford it."
Like her, thousands of Baltimore City residents live on less than $1,000 a month. They are making choices every month between having food, medications, housing, and now water. The recent increases to water bills have significantly impacted these vulnerable citizens. Additionally, the Board of Estimates increased bills by 37 percent, phased in over three years from 2013-2015. This 37 percent increase in water and sewer bills has placed many additional citizens into financial risk. Compounding the problem is the historic system of tax sale that sells the debt for unpaid water bills to predatory collectors. This draconian law has created significant hardship for many seniors, in some cases resulting in their homes being taken from them, leaving another vacant property behind in communities overburdened by abandonment.
In his op-ed Mr. Chow discussed some of the assistance that has been provided to help low income residents. While the numbers reported are significant, the relief provided to our senior citizens is typically very limited. Payment plans require a very substantial down payment, while the affordability of the plan for the homeowner is not typically considered. Mr. Chow's department also lacks transparent and consistent policies for how payment plans are administered. The lack of clear and consistent policies results in differences in the application of payment plans and discounts. This does not reflect the "fair" system that Mr. Chow promotes. Specifically, the department has no clear guidelines concerning medical hardships and inconsistent answers are received from department staff members. It is unclear in how to request a hardship exemption, and there is no transparent and fair application of this policy. Another challenge with Mr. Chow's "fair" system is that advocates regularly see errors in bills. When bills increase by 3-4 times from previous quarters without any known leak, this is an indication that there are errors in the billing system. Fixing this problem is critical in maintaining a just program and having a utility that is sustainable to the city and the region.
Creating a just system that protects the most vulnerable in our society is the responsibility of Mr. Chow's department. Providing programs that consider the affordability of each resident, similar to the Homeowners Property Tax Credit for taxes, would serve residents well and help ensure access to water for all Baltimore seniors. Rather than viewing water as a commodity that is purchased, Mr. Chow would benefit from viewing water as an essential utility and basic human right. In Baltimore we do not want to see our neighbors living without water. We propose a moratorium on sending water liens to tax sale for the next two years. Mr. Chow's department should not send any properties for tax sale until the billing inconsistencies are corrected. As a community we do not want to see anyone's home put at risk because of an error made by the city. It is our hope that Mr. Chow and his staff will begin to work with advocates to create a better system. We are prepared to work together. To date no meaningful changes have occurred.
Dan Ellis and Robin Jacobs, Baltimore
The writers are co-chairs of the Tax Sale Foreclosure Work Group.