In #TestimonyTuesday, Baltimore, MD, Maryland State, Water is a human right

TESTIMONY IN SUPPORT OF SB0096

Baltimore City – Tax Sales of Real Property – Water Liens

Water Taxpayer Protection Act of 2019

TO: Senator Nancy King, Chair; Senator Bill Ferguson, Vice Chair; and Honorable members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee

FROM:  Molly Amster, Jews United for Justice (JUFJ)

My name is Molly Amster. I am a resident of Baltimore City’s 43rd legislative district, and am the Baltimore Director of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), which organizes 5,000 people around the state in support of local social, racial, and economic justice issues. I submit this testimony in support of SB0096 on behalf of JUFJ.

JUFJ has been working for four years to address the serious inaccuracy and lack of due process in Baltimore City’s water billing. The Jewish tradition teaches that water is life and that housing is crucial. Denying residents either is a denial of human rights. We need to put an end to the immoral practice of selling people’s homes and places of worship at tax sale for water bills, especially with the problems DPW has with billing.

Billing inaccuracy is widespread and there is no formal dispute resolution process provided by the Department of Public Works (DPW) or Baltimore City. I received a $1,700 one-month water bill that I tried to dispute for months until my home was put on the water tax sale list. I spent days calling and sitting in DPW offices before the error was resolved. The bank holding my mortgage then increased my monthly escrow payments due to my home being put on the tax sale list — I’m now a bigger liability. I pay $1,200 extra each year because of a DPW billing error with no remedy. Like other Baltimoreans, I had no due process to dispute this bill, which negatively impacted me financially, emotionally, and physically.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. Thousands of homes and houses of worship are sold at tax sale each year for unpaid water bills, without providing basic due process to their owners. It borders on criminal. The fiscal note suggests that the city would take a financial hit should this bill pass, but that does not justify continuing to allow the city to steal people’s homes. Other water and sewer services successfully collect revenue without resorting to predatory tax sales.

Renters are especially harmed by DPW’s billing errors. They are routinely evicted through Rent Court where judges often allow unpaid water bills to be collected as rent, despite the fact that renters are not account holders, don’t receive water bills, and have no access to the account to correct or appeal a billing error. Landlords, not tenants, are responsible for fixing leaky pipes, yet tenants are on the hook for paying the spiking water bills due to leaks. Further, when landlords fail to pay water bills, whether or not tenants paid the landlord for water, properties can be sold at tax sale, leaving renters homeless. It is therefore important that all residential property be protected from being sold at tax sale for water bills, not just owner-occupied properties.

JUFJ urges a favorable report on SB0096.

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