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Bill passed to save homeowners, places of worship from the threat of tax sale over water bills

General Assembly passed bill on to Governor's desk
Posted at 5:47 PM, Apr 03, 2019

BALTIMORE (WMAR) — Today the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to permanently protect homeowners, renters and places of worship from the threat of tax sale over water bills.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby, will provide permanent protection for thousands of Baltimore families who risk losing their homes or places of worship through tax sale because of water bills each year, according to the Food and Water Watch. The legislation now heads to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

“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," said Washington. "What used to happen, and that has happened to far too many churches, far too many seniors, is that they have very high water bills. Sometimes it's due to errors in billing. Sometimes there's a leak. Sometimes they are just on hard times and what the city has had the right to do is sell the right to foreclose on their home and so they actually put it out to auction. ... It's not how we should be enforcing unpaid water bills."

This, unfortunately is what happened to the Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church on N. Fulton Ave. They shut down for months last year as overdue water bills threatened their building.

"We couldn’t believe that a small water bill would just snatch everything from us," said former Reverend Keith Bailey.

He said the city was going after them for $85,000 in unpaid water bills and an investor ended up buying their building, but they fought back.

"I couldn't believe they would charge the church for all these water bills. I went to Annapolis to fight for it, for them to remove that water bill from us because we knew that water bill did not belong to us," said Bailey.

And then, he said thankfully, a new pastor came in that was able to help financially and rally the community to take back the church. But they said none of this would have happened if this bill were in place. Now they have paid everything back, put accounting processes in place to make sure the bills never happen again and are on the mend after being back open for about nine months. A few weeks ago, they renamed the stretch of road in front of their building 'Elder James Woods Way' in appreciation of his efforts.

"To be recognized for this, this means to much to me," said Woods.

There are currently 25,291 homes, rental properties, and places of worship on the 2019 tax sale list and according to the Food and Water Watch, this has been a years long fight. In 2017, then-Delegate Mary Washington introduced state legislation to stop the practice, which passed the state House but died in the state Senate. Then, in late 2017, Mayor Catherine Pugh declared that homeowner-occupied properties with exclusively outstanding water bills would be removed from the tax sale list for the May 2018 tax sale. In 2018, the Maryland General Assembly passed a one-year moratorium on adding homeowner or renter-occupied properties to the 2019 tax sale list, again if they had exclusively outstanding water bills.

As a result of the Mayor’s directive in 2017, more than 3,500 homes were taken off the May 2018 tax sale list. If signed by Governor Hogan, thousands more properties would be removed from the tax sale list starting in 2020.

“As water rates continue to rise in Baltimore, Maryland legislators have taken decisive action to ensure that families, renters and places of worship won’t face the worst possible consequence for being unable to pay an unaffordable or incorrect water bill, ” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Watch. “Homeowners and places of worship in Baltimore struggling with water bills can now rest easy knowing their properties are safe from tax sale for water bills. We’re ecstatic to thank Sen. Washington and Del. Mosby for their incredible leadership, and the rest of the General Assembly that voted yes on this bill. Cheers to the end of this unconscionable practice!”