Photo by Julie Depenbrock/Capital News Service

In a 138-0 vote Thursday morning, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed legislation sponsored by Del. Nick Mosby to end Baltimore’s use of the tax sale process to seize homes and places of worship due to water bill-related debts. Advocates and lawmakers quickly celebrated it as a new protection for Baltimoreans who’ve dealt with erroneous water bills and constantly rising water and sewer bills.

But a surprise came for advocates and sponsors shortly after the vote: Amendments had been added by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, which apparently went unnoticed, that don’t actually protect all homes and religious sanctuaries from tax sale for water bill debt.

The city’s delegation in Annapolis had already approved the original versions of Mosby’s bill and its twin, sponsored by Sen. Mary Washington, that would bar the city from seizing any water or sewer bill liens on a property. Both lawmakers also wrote in protections for renters and places of worship, which remained unshielded under a one-year moratorium enacted last year on water lien-related tax sales of homeowner-occupied housing.

The proposed new protections for renters and religious sanctuaries remain in the amended versions–but only for cases where the owner of the property is dealing exclusively with unpaid water and sewer bills. Under the changes added by both the Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee this week to both bills, the city can still combine water and sewer debt with other liens, such as unpaid property taxes, that are past due by at least nine months to put a property on the tax sale list.

So, for example, a landlord with only $10 in overdue water bills and $740 in unpaid property taxes on his home, could still see it placed on the city’s tax sale list, where real estate investors can acquire the debt.

Reached for comment Friday afternoon, Mosby assured, “It’s gonna be corrected. Neither myself nor Senator Washington are gonna let the bill be weakened in any manner.”

He added: “When this bill passes in its final version, those properties will no longer be placed on tax sale based off of water bills.”

Rianna Eckel, Maryland organization for advocacy group Food and Water Maryland, told Baltimore Fishbowl Friday morning that the “additional language will leave out folks who have more than just exclusively outstanding water bills.” She said advocates are still working “to pass the strongest legislation possible to ensure that everyone is protected from losing their home or place of worship for unaffordable and incorrect water bills.”

Asked if any outside entities or groups had influenced the committee’s changes to the bill text before it passed, Mosby said he was not sure.

“There’s a lot of tricky stuff with this bill,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have people who will fight for what’s right. I’m committed to doing that and I know [Washington] is doing that.”

Mosby and Food and Water Watch Maryland had originally celebrated the bill’s unanimous passage Thursday, before the amendments came to light. In a statement put out by the group, the 40th District delegate had said, “It’s overdue that we end this predatory and dysfunctional system that allows residents to lose their homes and places of worship over these often unaffordable and incorrect water bills.”

Baltimore has historically used the tax sale process as a way to collect revenue from city residents who don’t pay their water bills, selling the liens on properties with $750 or more of combined debt overdue by at least 270 days. The Department of Public Works has argued the revenue from tax sales is also necessary to help fund infrastructure repairs, which are costing billions as the city races to update its sewer lines as part of a federal consent decree.

But advocates have said it’s unfair to sell off the liens on a property due to water bill debt, pointing out that water and sewer service are becoming less affordable to many residents thanks to ongoing annual rate hikes of around 10 percent, set to last through at least June of 2022. One economist has said this is creating a spiral-like effect in Baltimore in which more residents, already challenged with paying their bills, become delinquent each year, pushing the city to then keep raising its rates in hopes of recouping lost revenue.

Advocates also say the system is too error-prone to trust the numbers appearing on customers’ monthly statements. They cite documented cases in which residents and places of worship received bills that were hundreds or even thousands more than what they normally pay, and they struggled to resolve their cases with the Department of Public Works, leaving their properties vulnerable to tax sale. (Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen is among that group, he said in January.)

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration has sought to weaken both bills with amendments that would strip out protections for renters, more narrowly define churches and allow the city to keep combining a household’s debts to make it eligible for tax sale.

Last year’s moratorium alone pushed the city to remove more than 3,500 homeowner-occupied homes from its tax sale list, costing $5.7 million in potential revenue, according to DPW numbers provided in a fiscal note on Washington’s bill. Banning the practice outright would protect thousands more renters and places of worship and cost the administration even more, city officials have argued.

“We ask that you recognize there is a balancing effect that must be met,” Pugh’s director of government relations, Karen Stokes, told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee last month.

The city’s delegation in Annapolis already rejected those proposed amendments on both Mosby’s and Washington’s bills, however.

Upon learning of the amendments Thursday, Eckel said Washington, whose bill had been scheduled for a second-reader floor vote shortly after Mosby’s, asked for it to be held back. The legislation was then referred back to committee.

“It’s our strong intent to make sure that the bill is not weakened, is not gonna leave weakened like the administration originally tried,” Mosby said, speaking for himself and Washington. “I can say firmly and strongly as it relates to myself and the senator, we have been working aggressively to make sure that the bill is not weakened.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...