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Woman Sees Her Home Confiscated Over a Water Bill

Vicki Valentine lost the two-story brick row home after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and byzantine legal process called a "tax sale."

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Both bills failed, lawmakers said, largely due to fierce opposition from tax collectors and officials in Baltimore, which conducts the largest tax sale in the state.

Andrea Mansfield, of the Maryland Association of Counties, testified that the tax sale process provides “a much-needed device to ensure that property owners remit payment for their fair share of taxes and charges connected to public services.”

Eliminating water bills from the tax sales would result in more “deficient accounts,” and lead to “increased rates on citizens who properly pay,” she wrote.

Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat from Baltimore County who co-sponsored the legislation that would have banned the sale of delinquent water bills to investors, vehemently disagrees. “It's just disgusting. It's highway robbery. It's dead wrong. It's immoral," he said.

While city officials publicly defend the practice, he said, in reality “they're humiliated and embarrassed by it. Deep down they know how immoral it is."

Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, declined requests for an interview on the topic with the Investigative Fund.

City officials were more talkative earlier this year when they sought to block lawmakers from banning the sale of water bill liens. Mary Pat Fannon, a lobbyist for the mayor’s office, said in prepared testimony for a February 5 hearing that the city had begun offering repayment plans for water bills to help homeowners avoid tax sale.

She said that the 666 water bill liens sold by Baltimore City in 2009 was way down from the 1,129 sold to investors the previous year and credited the repayment plans for the reduction.

And she went further, testifying that nobody had lost a home due to an unpaid water bill from either sale in 2008 or 2009. What Fannon neglected to mention: Because of the lengthy transfer process in the courts, it was too early for those groups of property owners to begin losing their homes. Most tax sale lawsuits have taken longer than two years to resolve through the courts.

Fannon also said that without the tax sale, the city would need to file debt collection lawsuits against each delinquent property owner, which she said “would be very expensive, time consuming and flood the courts.”

Two days before Fannon’s testimony at the state capital, Valentine stood watching as her belongings piled up on the sidewalk in Baltimore.

A Neighborhood’s Decline

More than three years after Valentine’s small debt drew her into the tax sale, neither the city nor the investors seem to have won much.

The property is unlikely to be fixed up any time soon. Instead, it adds to a sense of decay that permeates some parts of urban Baltimore. On Valentine’s old block in the Sandtown neighborhood, all but a handful of houses, abandoned long ago, are boarded up.

Such decline has summoned other ills. “Drugs moved in and replaced the good with the bad,” said Valentine, who is living temporarily with her mother. Many of her possessions are in storage.

De Laurentis and Reiff now hold a “writ of possession” for a property that’s in need of substantial repair. Though the home is assessed at $46,000, in such dilapidated condition the investors said they probably would have trouble selling it for more than $16,000.

In addition, investors could be on the hook for a $7,000 water bill of their own. Just how that happened is unclear; there may have been an undetected leak in Valentine’s home. Last month, the city finally turned off the water.

If the investors take the final step to secure a deed to the property, they would have to pay the city roughly $6,300, which the city is then supposed to turn over to Valentine. The law entitles original property owners to receive at least some compensation.

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