Photo by Ángelo González

City lawmakers and water-rights advocates who’ve fought for years to bar the City of Baltimore from placing liens on properties due to unpaid water and sewer bills have scored a victory in Annapolis.

The Maryland House of Delegates this morning approved Senate Bill 96, Sen. Mary Washington’s legislation to protect homes and places of worship from the annual springtime tax sale that the city uses in part to recoup revenue from unpaid debts. The vote was unanimous, and followed Senate approval last month.

“The Water Taxpayer Protection Act will serve as a permanent safeguard for our most vulnerable residents to ensure that they do not lose their homes or places of worship to tax sale for the most basic necessity of our lives—water,” Washington, (43rd District), said in a statement.

Del. Nick Mosby (40th District), who sponsored twin legislation in the House of Delegates, said in a statement, “It was far overdue for the General Assembly to end this immoral practice, but now we have brought justice to families and places of worship across our city.”

The bill now heads to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. It could take effect with his signature, or without it after 30 days with no veto.

What the bill does: Baltimore City can no longer place liens on residential and religious properties for unpaid water and sewer bills to bring it to tax sale. Traditionally, the city had seized the debt if it totaled more than $750 and was overdue by at least nine months—the only jurisdiction in the state to do so, Washington pointed out in February.

The legislation protects homeowners, who were already shielded from tax sales tied to water bill debt under a late 2017 executive order from Mayor Catherine Pugh, as well as renters, who had remained unprotected until now. (Pugh’s administration unsuccessfully tried to persuade legislators early this session to remove protections for renters.)

What it doesn’t do: Thanks to some amendments quietly inserted in late February, properties aren’t protected from tax sale for water bills if the city combines that debt with other types. For example, if a homeowner has $15 in unpaid water and sewer bills and $736 in unpaid taxes, the city could merge those unpaid balances to push it over $750, and then enforce the liens on a property.

Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for the water-rights advocacy group Food and Water Watch Maryland, previously told Baltimore Fishbowl it was Pugh’s administration that lobbied in Annapolis to amend the legislation in committee in February. (Pugh’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the allegation.) The original bill text would have barred the city from sweeping in various debts to get past the $750 mark.

Washington, Mosby and advocates have begrudgingly accepted that tweak to the legislation while otherwise celebrating it as a win for defend city residents and sanctuaries. Countless cases have emerged in recent years of homeowners and churches whose properties were place on the tax sale list because of erroneous water bills, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

To add to those woes, city officials have voted to hike water rates by 30 percent through June of 2022, piling onto a 33 percent increase from 2016 through the end of fiscal 2019 that was approved during the Rawlings-Blake administration.

Advocates have decried the rate increases as unfair and unaffordable for bill payers, noting at least a third of city households have bills higher than 3 percent of their household income, considered the standard for “affordable” by the United Nations and other groups. The city has defended the need for the increases, pointing to billions of dollars in ongoing infrastructural repairs for the sewer system, as required under a state and federal consent decree.

Roughly one in 10 Baltimore homes were eligible for tax sale as of this winter, according to figures provided by the city’s Department of Public Works. Per a release today from Food and Water Watch Maryland, there are currently 25,291 residences and places of worship on the 2019 tax sale list, thousands of which advocates say can be removed under Washington and Mosby’s legislation.

The legislation, if enacted, would make permanent a 2018 moratorium on tax sales for unpaid water bills that was sponsored by then-Sen. Barbara Robinson.

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Ethan McLeod

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...