Moratorium on Baltimore water bill tax lien sales altered in final hours of 2018 session

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A much-fussed-over bill that, with the governor’s signature, would temporarily halt the city’s practice of selling residents’ homes at tax sale due to water bill debt advanced through the General Assembly last night–but not without losing some teeth.

SB 1098, proposed by Sen. Barbara Robinson (D-Baltimore), was amended in the House Ways and Means Committee Monday evening to reduce its moratorium period for residential water bill tax lien sales in Baltimore from two years to one, effectively applying it to only the 2019 tax sale season.

The committee also stripped an amendment that would have required the city’s Department of Public Works to hire an outside consulting firm to study its billing practices and customer service.

The end product was a bill that, through next spring, precludes the city from auctioning off any residential homes if they have solely water bill-related debt of $750 or more. Churches and businesses remain unprotected, and partial debts—such as unpaid taxes coupled with water bills, for example—surmounting $750 or more can still trigger a tax sale.

The Real News Network first reported the eleventh-hour alterations. Both houses passed the amended bill before the legislative session ended at midnight, legislative records show.

Robinson, who represents the city’s 40th district, told Baltimore Fishbowl Tuesday she was still pleased that her bill was amended late last week to protect renters, in addition to homeowners, and that the change for the time frame made on Monday “was not a deal-beaker.”

Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said advocates had expected Robinson’s bill wouldn’t reach a full vote in the House of Delegates Monday night.

But according to Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), lawmakers fast tracked it through the House Ways and Means Committee, where delegates debated and ultimately made some alterations before voting it forward to the full House floor.

Among the changes considered in committee was a proposal from Washington to amend SB 1098 to match her own bill, HB 1409, that originally sought to ban water lien tax sales altogether. HB 1409 passed the House unanimously last month, but died in Senate committee due to what advocates argued were politically motivated reasons. Ways and Means Committee rejected Washington’s amendment Monday night.

Washington also said the committee proposed amending SB 1098 to exclude renters, which would effectively match Mayor Catherine Pugh’s December 2017 executive order that protected only homeowner-occupied properties. The committee rejected that amendment, too.

But Washington said the committee ultimately did adopt amendments to strip the clause that would make DPW bring in a third party to examine water billing practices, and to shorten the bill’s moratorium from two years to one.

On Tuesday, Eckel said SB 1098’s passage was still “an incremental victory,” largely because of the elimination of the cause for DPW to bring in a third party. Washington and Eckel both said such a change could serve as an “invitation” to companies like Suez Environmental, which has reportedly lobbied the city to let it privatize Baltimore’s water supply.

“This is a good stopgap measure,” Eckel said. “I’m really grateful that Sen. Robinson ended up agreeing to do this, and was pushing for renters to be included.”

Still, churches remain unprotected. Outlets have highlighted examples of churches suddenly receiving erroneous, sky-high water bills that leave their buildings to go to tax sale, or threatened with the prospect.

Robinson has said she would have preferred places of worship and nonprofit grandfathered into her legislation. On Tuesday afternoon, she noted that she previously ran a nonprofit with multiple properties that served as transitional housing, in part for people with developmental disabilities.

“I would lose those homes, and that means those people would lose those homes,” she said.

The senator said she plans to propose additional protections from tax sale for nonprofits and sanctuaries next year.

Washington also plans to introduce her larger ban on the practice in Annapolis again in 2019. She said the mayor’s office has opposed her idea because the city can use tax sales to recoup revenue during the spring auction process.

“They use the whole tax sale system, which I think, annually, generates more than $20 million, to address budget gaps, which is horrible,” Washington said.

The mayor’s office has not responded to a request for comment on that claim. In an email requesting comment on the passage of SB 1098, a spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh said Robinson’s newly passed bill “simply codifies and expands the Mayor’s original moratorium.”

Eckel, of Food and Water Watch, said she doesn’t even mind the shortened moratorium period because it will give advocates an opportunity to lobby for an end to tax sales again in 2019. Had the moratorium lasted through 2020, any other changes would have been further delayed.

“Our coalition will be back in Annapolis next year fighting for the right solution,” Eckel said.

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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