Baltimore lawmakers back Senate bill that would ban water lien tax sales, but advocates worry it will be stripped down

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Photo by Ángelo González

Baltimore’s Senate delegation has decided not to support a House bill that would protect residents from having their homes and churches sold at auction due to water bill-related debt, instead backing a Senate bill that was originally amended to offer the same protections, but is now said to be under threat of being stripped down.

In a letter sent Wednesday morning to the author of the House bill, Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) wrote that Baltimore’s five sitting senators have voted to support Sen. Barbara Robinson’s (D-Baltimore) bill, SB 1098. The legislation originally only protected homeowner-occupied dwellings from tax sales—codifying a change announced by Mayor Catherine Pugh in December 2017–but was amended in mid-March to match the protections in Washington’s bill, HB 1409, which seeks to ban water lien tax sales for all properties, including renter-occupied homes and churches.

Both bills had stalled in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee; its chair, Ed Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) had asked Washington to secure the written support of Baltimore City’s Senate delegation if she wanted her bill to advance.

That didn’t happen, however.

A copy of a letter, dated April 3, from Conway, obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl, says the city’s senators have “unanimously supported” SB 1098, “which also seeks to address the issue”—presumably the threat that city dwellers who fall behind on water bill payments face of having their properties taken away—”affecting our residents.”

An attached voting sheet indicates two senators—Conway and Sen. Bill Ferguson—gave their written support for SB 1098 on March 22, several days after Robinson’s bill was amended to match Washington’s, while three others gave their support only yesterday.

Washington was not immediately available to comment.

Rianna Eckel, an organizer for water-rights advocacy group Food and Watch Maryland, which helped write Washington’s bill, affirmed that Conway’s letter effectively renders HB 1409 “dead in the water.”

On Tuesday, the group suggested Conway was holding up HB 1409 in the city’s Senate delegation because Washington is currently campaigning to run for Conway’s seat in the upcoming election.

On a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Conway dismissed that allegation, saying Washington’s letter requesting the Senate delegation’s support, dated March 30, didn’t appear on her desk until Monday.

“The delegate never called and requested the letter” until April 2, Conway said.

Asked why she chose to support Sen. Robinson’s bill, and whether she preferred one proposal over the other, Conway said she wasn’t familiar with the differences between either piece of legislation.

“I know this much, that it stops individuals’ houses from having water liens placed on them and going to tax sale,” she said, referring to SB 1098. “What her specific amendments are, I’m not quite sure.”

Now, advocates say something else is afoot with SB 1098.

“We’ve heard from Senator Robinson’s office that the Baltimore City Senate Delegation is offering amendments to this legislation that would make it exclusively homeowner-occupied for water liens only,” she said, meaning the amendments protecting commercial and industrial buildings and houses of worship would be stripped away.

She added: “If it’s just codifying the mayor’s orders, then it’s not really changing the situation.”

Reached by phone, a staffer in Robinson’s office who declined to give her name said Pugh’s suspension of tax sales for homeowners must be codified as state law to offer fuller protection. “A moratorium just stops it term by term… We don’t want it to ever be an option to go back to what it was.”

Robinson “doesn’t want to the bill to just die,” the staffer said, and would rather be able to pass her original, non-amended bill this session, then try to add additional protections next year. Asked why Robinson’s bill might not advance with added protections for renters and other property owners, the staffer said she wasn’t sure.

She added: “We want to have something to build off of next year. It’s easier to try to amend existing legislation than to have to go and propose it all over again.”

There were no apparent objections to Washington’s bill in the House of Delegates. It sailed through with a vote of 138-0.

And in order for Robinson’s bill to become law, it will have to go through both houses.

The legislative session ends April 9.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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