By a one-vote margin, Baltimore’s spending board voted to effectively proceed the city’s spring tax sale Wednesday despite pleas from City Council members to postpone the sale.
Two items related to the sale were before the Board of Estimates, including the advertisement of the sale in The Baltimore Sun, a process that city officials said must get underway next week for the sale to be held on schedule May 17.
The city typically holds a tax lien certificate sale in May to collect on past-due property taxes or other delinquent charges. Investors purchase the liens from the city during an online auction, giving them authority to collect the debts — with interest. The buyers eventually could foreclose on the properties.
Democratic Council President Nick Mosby, also the chair of the estimates board, argued Wednesday in favor of postponing a vote on the advertising purchase. That effectively would have delayed the sale. He, along with Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry, who is also a board member, argued the tax sale is predatory and inevitably will cost city residents money or their homes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Henry Raymond, the city’s finance director, said Baltimore expects to receive $14 million to $15 million on the day of the tax sale, money the city “desperately needs.” Without it, the city will end the fiscal year in June with a deficit, Raymond said.
Baltimore already has accumulated a substantial deficit in fiscal year 2021 through spending on coronavirus-related items while revenue that has fallen well short of expectations. As of February, the city was $59 million in the hole for the year, a portion of which city officials hope to make up with reimbursements for COVID-related expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
If a deficit remains in June, city officials will have to draw down the balance from the city’s rainy day fund. It took $8 million from the fund to close out the budget in fiscal year 2020.
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Still, arguments have been made repeatedly to delay the annual tax sale during the pandemic. Democratic Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced a bill earlier this year to postpone the sale, but was told by the city law department that such a decision was not within council’s powers. Since then, Ramos and nine of her colleagues signed a letter to Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott and Raymond, urging them to delay the sale or, as a compromise, remove homeowners’ properties from the auction.
The tax sale was postponed once during the pandemic in 2020 when then-Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young was in office, but it ultimately proceeded last July.
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Scott, a member of the spending board who controls three of its five seats, said Wednesday that he continues to look at “every option” regarding the tax sale. But he pushed for the advertisement to proceed.
Raymond said the city has a “short time frame” to go forward.
Mosby noted City Council has been pushing for “some time” to delay the sale.
“Why put anxiety on the homeowners?” he asked.
A motion made by Mosby to defer a vote on the tax sale-related items failed. Scott, along with City Solicitor Jim Shea and acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark, voted in favor of the two measures to advance the sale. Mosby and Henry dissented.