The Maryland Senate has advanced a newly amended bill that, for the next two years, would bar Baltimore City from auctioning off residents’ homes—renters included—at tax sale due to water bill-related debts of $750 or more.
SB 1098, now co-sponsored by four of Baltimore’s senators, in addition to Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick County), was amended Friday morning with language exempting any residential property from water lien tax sales through 2020, going a step further from the policy change set by Mayor Catherine Pugh in December 2017. The bill had initially applied the protection only to homeowner-occupied housing.
The measure did leave off churches. Faith leaders had testified in support of an earlier amendment that would have protected their properties from tax sale as well.
The Senate passed SB 1098 on second reader, legislative records show. It still needs to be passed on third reader before it heads to the House of Delegates.
In a phone interview Friday evening, Sen. Barbara Robinson, one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, said she had hoped to add language protecting churches, “but this is a start. We can come back next year and expand it.”
The vote in support of her bill comes on the heels of a hectic week for water lien-related legislation. On Wednesday, a separate proposal from Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), which would have fully banned water lien tax sales, was effectively killed when Baltimore’s Senate delegation voted to support Robinson’s measure instead. Robinson’s bill was initially amended to match Washington’s, but those changes were stripped away in committee, activists who helped write Washington’s bill said.
Washington’s bill passed the House of Delegates in early March in a 138-0 vote. However, it remained stuck for weeks in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Ed Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore and Howard counties), had asked Washington to obtain written support from her Senate colleagues representing Baltimore if she wanted her legislation to advance.
Delegation chair Sen. Joan Carter Conway—who told Baltimore Fishbowl Wednesday that she didn’t receive Washington’s formal request until April 2—sent her a response letter on Tuesday saying she and four other senators had instead chosen to support Robinson’s bill. Conway noted she wasn’t familiar with the differences between either piece of legislation.
Washington is presently running for Conway’s Senate seat. Water-rights advocates from the nonprofit Food and Water Watch Maryland, which helped write Washington’s bill, suggested Conway may have been scuttling the legislation from her position as chair of the Senate delegation.
Even with SB 1098’s newly added protection for renters, the group says it still opposes the bill. Rianna Eckel, a Maryland organizer for Food and Water Watch, said in an email that there are “still three problems” with SB 1098. The first, she said, is that its language protects a home only if the resident has racked up $750 or more solely in water and sewer bill debt, rather than other charges like property taxes.
“If someone has $10 in property taxes and $740 in a water bill they can’t pay, or are still contesting, they still go up for tax sale,” she said.
She also pointed out that churches and commercial business also remain unprotected. Outlets have reported on cases of faith leaders suddenly receiving water bills for thousands of dollars and either having their sanctuaries auctioned off or facing such threats from the city.
Robinson said more data on tax lien sales is needed to “effectively include churches,” though she intends to push for that protection next session. She said she can understand some constituents, including pastors, will be disappointed, but noted, “it’s not uncommon for you to have to take a couple of years to get a bill passed like you wanted.”
“They know that I’m not going to let it go, that I’m going to keep working on it until they are included,” she added.
Another amendment to SB 1098 would require the Baltimore City Department of Public Works to hire an outside consulting firm to study its billing practices and customer service. Eckel said this could represent “an invitation in for water privatization companies.”
The Sun reported this past winter that French firm Suez Environment and lobbyists had made overtures to city lawmakers to let Suez privatize Baltimore water system. The reportedly pitched lease term was 40 to 50 years.
SB 1098 will require a full vote of approval from both the Senate and the House of Delegates to advance to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. A third reader Senate vote has not yet been set for SB 1098, according to legislative records, and the Senate has adjourned as of press time. The 2018 session ends in three days.
This story has been updated with comment from Sen. Barbara Robinson, and clarified to reflect that SB 1098 passed on second reader, but still needs the Senate’s approval on third reader before it goes to the House of Delegates.
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