UPDATE: The bill passed on the floor of the House of Delegates by a 138-0 vote on March 6th. The bill is now moving to the state Senate.
Maryland is, yet again, emerging as a leader for progressive change. Now known for their historic fracking ban, Marylanders have anything but stopped to bask in the success of keeping the energy industry at bay. Instead, we’re busy working to make sure Baltimore city residents have access to affordable and safe water.
What the Water Taxpayer Protection Act Does
The bill, The Water Taxpayer Protection Act (HB 1409), was introduced by Delegate Mary Washington (D-43) and is poised to pass through the Maryland House of Delegates. This is a big deal.
It would do two important things:
- Remove water bills from tax sale in Baltimore City
- Ensure that nobody loses their home, apartment or church due to unaffordable or erroneous water bills
Right now 15 of the 16 members of the Baltimore City House Delegation have co-sponsored the bill. And last Friday, the Baltimore City Delegation in Annapolis voted unanimously to support it!
After hearing testimony from two Baltimore pastors, members of the House Delegation chimed up to say how urgently needed this legislation is.
Reverend Al Gwynn explained how he nearly lost his church to tax lien sale after his church was placed on the list due to a multi-thousand dollar bill that he had been disputing with DPW for years. The other, Reverend Keith Bailey is still working to redeem his Church, which had a lien sold at the 2017 tax sale, after an $85,000 incorrect water bill was sent to the wrong address, now he’s facing incredible hoops just to get the mistake corrected and save his Church.
In its next stop a few days later, the House Ways & Means committee voted unanimously to pass the bill and send it to a final vote on the House floor. Although we still have a ways to go, this legislation is gaining incredible momentum.
Why Can’t People Afford Water Anyway?
Simply put, Baltimore needs this legislation to pass, now.
Community members are facing enormous hurdles in trying to keep up with the rising costs of their water bills and the lack of a comprehensive affordability programs in Baltimore.
Water rates in our city have more than quadrupled since 2000 due to rising infrastructure needs and declining federal support.
This has left families stuck with excessive bills that they cannot afford to pay.
The Department of Public Works also has a terrible track record of sending out erroneous and hugely inflated bills. Most recently, more than 500 people were sent $50,000 water bills after a software glitch.
In 2017 alone, more than ten thousand homes, churches and rental properties were sent to tax sale.
We’re with @DelMaryW in Annapolis today at the Ways & Means committee hearing to ensure that nobody in #Baltimore loses their home or church for unaffordable #water bills #WaterIsAHumanRight pic.twitter.com/E1tipbzJ26
— FWW Maryland (@FWWMaryland) February 27, 2018
Legal advocates estimate that between 70-80% of these include water bills issues.
After a lien is sold on a property at tax sale, properties can only be reclaimed at a steep price.
Now, in order to avoid foreclosure, owners must pay investors who purchased the lien the original lien price, plus interest, court costs, legal fees, and postage - all of that money goes to the investors who purchased the lien, not the city!
Basically, Baltimoreans are being forced to pay absurd fees on unaffordable or erroneous water bills simply to line the pockets of mostly out-of-state investors.
What’s the Deal With The City Taking People’s Homes Over Water Anyway?
There have been numerous stories of families going to extremes just to keep their homes after being sent the dreaded tax sale notice.
One woman was lucky enough to have her neighbor donate her entire $1,300 tax return to her so she could pay off her water bill.
A relative of Harriet Tubman was forced to crowdfund to pay off his water bill and save his family home.
But when the City accidentally sold tax liens to the Orioles and Ravens stadiums because of more than $70,000 in outstanding water bills, the city had to cancel the sales and repay the investors. The stadium authority that owns the venues at the time was disputing their water bills and because the authority was also exempt from tax sales the city had to spend taxpayer money on a mistake.
Similarly, when the city sold a lien on a property owned by the Can Company, they were forced to pay out because the bill was incorrect, and being sent to the wrong address.
The real tragedy, however, is that families across the city are losing their homes to tax sale, being evicted from rental properties, or losing their churches. Corporations are being spared, but our neighbors aren’t. That’s not the kind of city we are, and the Water Taxpayer Protection Act will right this incredible wrong.
What Happens Next?
Now, the bill heads to the floor, where it is expected to be passed by the House of Delegates.
This bill comes after years of fighting for the city to protect the human right to water, and remove water from the tax sale process.
During the 2017 legislative session, similar legislation sponsored by Delegate Washington, which called for a one year statewide moratorium on water bill related tax sales, passed the House of Delegates but stalled in the Senate.
Now, with the bill expected to pass the House, we call on our Senators to uphold the human right to water in Baltimore City, and pass HB 1409.
We need our Baltimore Senate Delegation: Senator Robinson, Senator Oaks, Senator Conway, Senator Nathan-Pulliam, Senator McFadden and Senator Ferguson to lead the way.