Baltimore has put tax liens on approximately 1,000 properties related to past due water bills. Some of the homeowners allege that the city limited their ability to challenge billing errors.
The tax liens on the properties are scheduled for auction on May the 15th. Typically, homeowners interested in recovering their home are charged substantial amounts for interest, court costs and other fees by investors, who purchase the lien.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has expressed her concerns that the arrangement could harm the most vulnerable residents, while simultaneously hurting the city.
Tax liens are meant to be an enforcement tool and an aid for collecting debt. However, they occasionally fail to generate money for local governments, when properties fail to sale. Subsequently, homeowners are often displaced, increasing the number of vacant homes in the respected area.
Advocates and lawmakers have worked to find reliable alternatives, which can guarantee water bills are paid in full. In October 2016, the Department of Public Works developed a new appeals process that effectively eliminates negated the property homeowners’ ability to seek an informal hearing via a third party.
The problem is further complicated due to the history of erroneous water bills being sent out to customers. In rare cases, customers received bills in excess of tens of thousands of dollars. It is also believed that some meter readers made up the figures.
Officials with the department believe the enhanced appeals process is effective. It comes alongside a $160 million upgrade to the billing system that now provides consumers with more information than ever before. Additional personnel have been hired to answer consumer questions and rectify problems.
Residents with suspicions that their bills contain errors should contact the department and request an adjustment. Forms, for such requests, are accessible online. The tax sale process can be initiated as soon as the total equals $750 or the bill is nine months past due.
Just recently, state legislation was put in place to ban tax sales for overdue water bill in 2018. The legislation passed the House of Delegates, but was not brought up in the Senates before the April adjournment.
While other actions have been taken to fix the problem nothing has brought betterment for the long-term.