by Dharna Noor

UPDATE April 3, 2019, 6:15 PM: The legislation has officially been changed to completely remove water bills from the tax sale equation, according to a representative from Senator Mary Washington’s office. Washington’s office obtained an opinion from Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who confirmed that the legislation should mean that “water and sewer bills are completely taken out of the equation for…the bills that trigger that tax sale.” said Christine Griffin, Washington’s chief of staff.

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that could protect thousands of Baltimoreans from losing their homes over unpaid water bills.

The state’s House of Delegates unanimously approved the Water Taxpayer Protection Act (SB 96/HB161) on Wednesday, following unanimous approval by the Senate last month. It will now go to Governor Larry Hogan’s desk for final approval, where is it expected to be signed into law.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby, will permanently remove Baltimore’s ability to place liens on homes and churches for overdue water and sewage bills—liens that are auctioned off at Baltimore’s annual tax sale.

Supporters are celebrating the bill’s passage, though they fear it may be compromised.

“After three years of fighting to end the practice of selling homes for unaffordable and incorrect water bills, we have finally passed the legislation our city needs,” Washington said in a statement. “The passage of this bill serves as a reminder that with the relentless pursuit for justice, change for the better can happen.”

Washington, who was previously a state representative, has introduced versions of the legislation for the past three years. In 2017, her proposal passed in the House but not the Senate. Later that year, Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered a stop to tax sales for homeowners with exclusively outstanding water bills. The Maryland General Assembly codified the order last year—they passed a one-year moratorium on the practice.

The new legislation makes this moratorium permanent for homeowners, and extends protections to renters and church owners.

These protections, however, might only extend to Baltimoreans with solely unpaid water bills, thanks to a change to the bill’s language approved by a House Committee in February. Shortly after the House unanimously passed the legislation, Delegate Mosby and supporters realized that representatives had pasted language from a previous version of the bill into it for reference. This bit of pasted language altered the bill’s meaning.

Currently, the city can issue liens that trigger tax sale on any properties with $750 or more in outstanding fees. The legislation that Mosby and Washington originally proposed would completely remove water bills from that equation—if a resident has $750 or more in unpaid water bills but no other outstanding fees, they would be protected.

With the bill’s changes, however, water bills can still compound with other unpaid fees to trigger a tax sale. That means if that resident has even just $1 of another outstanding fee, such as an alarm violation or unpaid property tax, that fee would combine with their water bill and the city could still issue liens—and they would still be at risk of losing their home or church.

It is currently unclear whether or not this change will be implemented, as it was the result of a “legislative mistake,” says Rianna Eckel, an organizer with the environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

“[The Senate’s Ways and Means and Budget and Tax Committees] added back in code to the bill for reference, and when they added the code in they changed the intent of the bill,” she said. She says she does not believe the new language was ever meant to change the meaning of the bill. Food and Water Watch is currently attempting to clarify the effect of the changed language.

Either way, she says the bill’s passage is a win—especially because the Department of Public Works says some residents have faced tax sale because of incorrect water bills, and because water rates in Baltimore are rapidly increasing. City water bills have quadrupled since 2000, and in January, Baltimore’s Board of estimates approved a rate hike of roughly 30% over the next three years, beginning this July.

“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,” she said.

Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) spokesperson Jeffery Raymond said the legislation approved by the General Assembly will mean the city will make less money from tax sales, which could force DPW to increase water rates to cover the losses.

“The water utilities are enterprise funds that must be self-sustaining; they receive no revenue other than from the ratepayers,” he said. “Declining revenue due to these losses are borne by ratepayers who are paying their bills.”

But Eckel called this a “sorry excuse” to not help ratepayers manage their bills.

“This has been their argument through their whole fight, that if we [pass this legislation], they’re not going to be collect any money and rates are going to go up astronomically,” she said. “But the end of the day it’s a scare tactic…it’s an excuse for them to not do their jobs and to not try to stop collecting money in ways that destroy people’s lives. They’re not willing to look at options that are humane.”

Eckel says that the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), the department that handles drinking water and wastewater treatment for towns throughout Maryland’s Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, doesn’t use tax sales as a method of collecting revenue from unpaid water bills—and has a higher collection rate than Baltimore’s DPW. “With WSSC, if they notice there’s a spike in your water bill, they call you or even send someone to your house,” she said.

Instead, she said, DPW puts the onus on ratepayers to interpret increasing bills. “DPW could do a lot more preventative and proactive work rather than when people have billing disputes, just telling them, oh, you must have a leak in your property,” she said.

Raymond noted that DPW does have assistance programs and payment plans for “vulnerable customers,” including low-income ratepayers and senior citizens. But Eckel says they don’t do enough, especially because they don’t apply to renters, who make up most of the city’s population.

Baltimore’s water rates are set through June 2022—they will increase by roughly 10% each year until then. “Should revenues decline in that time we would have to reconsider our operations and capital investments,” said DPW’s Raymond. “We’ll assess future rate requests—currently expected to begin moderating in 2022—based on our needs and our updated revenue projections.”

But Eckel says that the choice between increased water bills and increased property loss at tax sale is a false one. “If DPW worked with people to help them pay their water bills, if they worked with communities, people would pay,” she said. “To instead rely on taking people’s homes as your primary collections method is insane and immoral.”

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.