Legislation Fights Liens Based on Water Bills

Reverend Keith Bailey is about to lose his church because of an erroneous water bill. Two bills being considered in the Maryland Senate would prevent this from happening

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: This is the Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church. Its congregation is led by Reverend Keith Bailey.

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: I’ve been here for nine years now. And the people that come here are elderly people that has been charter members for years. And it has been a great eyesight to the neighborhood for the homeless, food pantry and other activities that we do in the community to help raise money for to help the community.

DHARNA NOOR: The church’s food pantry services dozens of people through the neighborhood.

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: I have community service people from Mitchell Courthouse that come to me every Monday to Friday, sometimes it’s twenty, sometimes it’s ten. Freddie Gray was under my supervision with community service for two years, and he had a hundred hours each year.

DHARNA NOOR: And he worked here in the food pantry with you?

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: Here. This is where he was working. And the day he didn’t show up was the day that he had, you know, passed.

DHARNA NOOR: But the GMBC congregation are about to lose their church due to an inaccurate water bill. The church’s bill was eighty seven thousand dollars.

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: We called the city to investigate it. They never came. They did come out, they looked in the meter hole and they didn’t see any meters during that time inside of the ground, into to the “pits,” they call it. And after that, we never heard from the city anymore.

DHARNA NOOR: So, there’s no meter here? They could find the meter?

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: First of all, they couldn’t find the meters. Then they came out and they sent a crew out, and they looked, and there wasn’t no meters down in the pits.

DHARNA NOOR: By the time the city corrected the bill, the lean on Reverend Bailey’s church had already been purchased.

RIANNA ECKEL: So, he’s looking at raising ten thousand dollars to save his church.

DHARNA NOOR: Advocates say this is surprisingly common.

RIANNA ECKEL: Actually, just today I was speaking with a pastor who just paid a four thousand dollar water bill that he’s been fighting with the city about for two years, and they’ve gone back and forth. They’re claiming he has a leak on his property. He brought them a certified note from a plumber saying there is no leak. They keep telling him there’s a leak. They’re saying they’re going to put his church up for tax sale if he doesn’t pay it. So, you know, it’s easier to pay the four thousand dollars than to continue, what, how many more years to go through this headache with the Department of Public Works?

DHARNA NOOR: The church is one of tens of thousands of properties Baltimore auctions property liens on every year to collect unpaid taxes and fees owed to the city. But two pieces of legislation currently being considered by the Maryland Senate would both prevent this from happening. The first, the Water Taxpayer Protection Act, is sponsored by delegate Mary Washington. It passed unanimously in the House earlier this month. The second is a bill sponsored by Delegate Barbara Robinson. Originally, it only applied to homeowners, but it’s since been amended to include rented homes and places of worship. Both bills would remove water bills from tax sale in Baltimore.

RIANNA ECKEL: So, now there’s kind of these two paths to victory that are both sitting in the Senate budget and taxation committee.

DHARNA NOOR: With only a week left in the session, activists are urging the budget and taxation committee to push one of these bills through. If passed in the Senate, Washington’s bill would become law. But Robinson’s has yet to go through the House.

RIANNA ECKEL: But it’s still possible if they prioritize it and they use their time well.

DHARNA NOOR: And advocates say these measures are urgent. Water bills have quadrupled in Baltimore since the year 2000, and a report commissioned by Food and Water Watch shows that by 2019, half of all Baltimoreans won’t be able to afford their water bills.

RIANNA ECKEL: So, you would expect that every time they raise rates that you’re going to see a higher and higher number on the tax sale list, because more and more people cannot afford to pay their water bills, as well as the audit was just released that showed that they are consistently having issues with their water billing system they’re sending out, completely overly inflated, erroneous water bills.

DHARNA NOOR: Meanwhile, Bailey and his community will continue to fight to keep their church.

REVEREND KEITH BAILEY: I’m trying to raise money. I have a GoFundMe page, Save Greater Bethesda. And I have people that want this putting money in, and we thank God for those that have already put, to try to save the church.

DHARNA NOOR: For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.