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Moratorium called for Baltimore City water and sewer liens

A moratorium on placing liens on city houses solely for unpaid water or sewer charges will be introduced Monday night at the Baltimore City Council following a scathing audit that showed widespread problems in the city’s billing system.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Councilman Carl Stokes said Monday they planned to introduce a resolution to halt listing properties in the city’s annual tax sale based solely on unpaid water or sewer charges for up to two years. In May 2010, 851 properties were included in the city’s tax sale based solely on estimated readings for a year or more.

An audit of the water and sewer billing process found the Department of Public Works had over-billed up to 70,000 customers, which will result in refunds totaling more than $4 million. Other homes with new water meters had not received water bills for three years, the audit found.

The audit also found that the department relied on estimated meter readings for a year or more in more than 18,000 properties — and that 2,600 customers received estimated bills for at least four-and-a-half years.

“I’ve encountered too many constituents on fixed incomes who routinely have to choose between feeding their families and buying needed medication or paying improperly estimated water bills, which if left unpaid have the danger of forcing them into homelessness,” Young said in a statement. “It’s time we do something serious to remedy this situation which has driven too many Baltimoreans further into poverty.”

Young’s office said he plans to introduce later this month an ordinance to enforce the moratorium through a change in city law.

The audit also found that a quarter of the total, adjusted water billings over the past three years were the result of estimated billings, which totaled $31.7 million. Some customers complained that efforts to correct the billing errors resulted in over-billings.