With time waning, legislators stall on proposal to ban water lien tax sales in Baltimore

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With less than a week left in Maryland’s 2018 legislative session, water-rights advocates are growing restless about the fate of proposed legislation that would ban sales of Baltimoreans’ properties at auction due to water bill-related debt.

Roughly one month ago, the Maryland House of Delegates passed Del. Mary Washington’s (D-Baltimore City) proposed ban on water lien tax sales in a unanimous 138-0 vote, sending it to the Senate.

“HB 1409 is just a couple steps away from becoming law,” Washington told Baltimore Fishbowl on Friday.

Despite its momentum, the legislation, after being referred to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee , appears to have stalled. Sen. Ed Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore and Howard counties), chair of the committee, hasn’t advanced the bill, and legislative records indicate no hearing has been scheduled.

Kasemeyer has not responded to multiple voicemails and emails left with his office this week.

Washington said that for her bill to advance, Kasemeyer asked her to obtain a formal “letter of support” from the Baltimore City Senate Delegation. Baltimore Fishbowl obtained a copy of a letter she sent on March 30.

“At this point, I’m not surprised at the hurdles that one faces to pass good legislation, but I’m willing to do it,” she said.

Thomas Meyer, a senior organizer for the water-rights nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water Watch Maryland, which helped write Washington’s legislation, said four of the city’s five state senators have given their support for HB 1409. The only one who hasn’t, he said: Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City).

Washington is presently running for Conway’s state Senate seat in Baltimore’s 43rd district.

“It has really broad support, not only in her district but across the city,” Meyer said. “It’s on Senator Conway now to make sure the bill gets passed.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, a staffer in Conway’s office said the senator was not immediately available to comment, but was aware of both bills.

The city has traditionally auctioned off homes and churches with water bill-related debt of $750 or more each spring. Water-rights advocates have decried the practice, calling it an abuse of rights and an unfair method that, at times, is spurred by billing errors by the city’s Department of Public Works.

In December 2017, Mayor Catherine Pugh surprised some when she suspended the policy for homeowner-occupied housing, declaring 45 minutes into one of her weekly press briefings: “Water bill alone, your house cannot be taken. That is a mandate from this office, and we’re not having it.”

A separate piece of legislation was filed by Sen. Barbara Robinson, also of Baltimore, and co-sponsor Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick County) that would have codified Pugh’s change only for owner­-occupied housing. In mid-March, however, she amended her bill to protect all homes and properties from auction.

In effect, her bill is the same as Washington’s.

Her proposal received a hearing in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on March 20, legislative records show, but it also hasn’t budged.

Robinson has not responded to multiple messages requesting comment.

Asked whether she would prefer that her bill or Robinson’s advances, Washington said that ultimately, “the important thing for me is that this issue, that tax sales for water liens, are stopped in Baltimore City.” Still, she added, “HB 1409 is ready to go, so I don’t understand why they would pass the bill that would have to go to another house and then come back out.”

Rev. Dr. Alvin J. Gwynn Sr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in North Baltimore, nearly lost his church in 2017 after he received what he says were “erroneous and fraudulent” water bills.

“If you’re used to getting a bill like $120 every two months, and then suddenly you get a bill for $1,500,” he said. “The billing system is just really messed up.”

He remains optimistic about the fate of the proposals in Annapolis–either one–despite the session’s approaching finale on April 9.

“We’ve been down there, I’ve talked to them,” he said. “I think it’s gonna come out of that committee.”

Ethan McLeod
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