Baltimore Public Works Director Alfred H. Foxx explains at… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore…)
Rhonda Wimbish says she has been battling Baltimore officials over a $300 water bill — more than six times her normal rate — for more than a year.
Now Wimbish, a single mother of a disabled child, says her West Baltimore home is scheduled to go to tax sale over the bill, which she maintains is inaccurate.
"What do I do? Do I pay my inflated water bill or do I feed my child?" Wimbish said to a City Council committee Wednesday evening. "I've gone through your process. I've done everything I could to fight this bill."
Wimbish was one of scores of angry residents who packed a hearing on water bill errors.
Some council members, led by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, want to halt the process of sending homes to tax sale over the bills after a scathing audit exposed tens of thousands of billing errors. Young said he would introduce legislation Monday to impose a moratorium on the tax sale of homes because of water bill liens.
"Let's be fair to the citizens of Baltimore and … not gouge them," said Young, who added that he expected residents to file a class action suit over the bills.
He dismissed a contention by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her law department that bond holders could sue over a moratorium.
Rawlings-Blake has said the liens are a valuable tool for collecting revenue and that abolishing them could hurt the city's bond rating. In addition, a moratorium is unnecessary, she has said, because liens are placed against properties only if the city has not received any payment in more than a year.
The hearing resembled a spirited church service at times as residents, many clutching folders of bills, cheered, clapped and shouted "Uh huh."
Outside the council chamber, residents grew angry when Councilman Nick Mosby said he was undecided on a binding moratorium. Several surrounded him, shouting, prompting police assigned to City Hall to intervene.
The council has already unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution seeking a moratorium on tax sales because of water bills.
Finance officials said Wednesday that 2,300 properties were currently on the tax sale list because of unpaid water bills. Of those, 162 bills had been estimated. Residents could avoid losing their homes by working out a payment plan by the end of next month, they said.
That drew jeers from the audience and a rebuke from Councilman Carl Stokes, who chaired the hearing.
"No one wants a payment plan for bills they do not owe," Stokes said.
East Baltimore resident Deborah Williams was among those who testified that she could lose her home.
Her family of three received a water bill for $2,960 last year, and subsequent bills for $800 and $300. Their normal rates are around $80.
Williams said Public Works employees never examined her meter but did determine her neighbors' meter was faulty. When her neighbors' meter was replaced, the bills went down to normal levels, she said.
"It's not right to make me pay when it's not my mistake," said Williams, who says she has health problems that make money tight.
The city's water billing practices have come under scrutiny since the comptroller's office released its audit of the system last month. It found that tens of thousands of customers probably received incorrect bills and about 3,000 residents with new water meters never received bills.
In the aftermath of the audit, the public works department issued $4.2 million in refunds to 38,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Department of Public Works chief Alfred H. Foxx told the council's taxation and finance committee Wednesday evening that to address billing problems, his department has added more call center workers, meter readers and inspectors.
The public works department has also sharply reduced the percentage of bills that are estimated, and the city is seeking companies to provide and install new water meters for the 410,000 city and county properties that rely on the city's system. But the project is expected to take three to five years.
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