On the Soapbox:

A Cautionary Tale: Lien on Me

by Lynda Lambert

Some property owners in Baltimore City literally have to die to get billed for alley improvements.

I have a story to tell you: a cautionary tale.

Last year, in late April, my mother passed away. The bulk of her estate was in the family home. My family and I spent about eight months cleaning it out, one month fixing it up, and it was two months before we sold it. (Almost a full year since the City was apprized of my mother's death.)

Why does this matter?

It's background. Keep reading.

It comes time to settle for the property, and the attorney who is doing the settlement—not ours—goes ahead and settles the property without having the final title clearance. (Don't ask me why. Don't know.)

The day after the settlement, however, when I'm just getting used to hearing my sigh of relief, the settlement attorney calls me.

"There's a lien on the property," he says, "from the City, for alley paving."

"Can't be," I say, "The alley paving was done in 1996. My mother paid that long ago—surely. Besides, I never got a bill after the estate was opened. It's got to be a mistake."

They check.

The settlement attorney assures me it's legit; my attorney assures me it's legit. But I find it hard to believe, so I call the Collection Division myself.

"Sometimes, it takes that long to bill," the Collection Division woman says.

"Six years?!" I say, incredulous.

"Longer, sometimes," she says.

"No wonder the City doesn't have any money!" I say.

She laughs.

But think of this. Let's say the City repairs just 100 alleys in a year, with 10 houses each along them. If the cost to each house is $1,000—which is easily within the ballpark—then the city could have billed $1,000,000 in that year. But they don't bill it; they put the lien on.

"But what about the lien?" I say. "How did that get there, if you've never billed it?" (Liens are usually only put on properties for unpaid bills.)

"Well," she says. "Knowing that it could be up to eight years before a bill goes out, we automatically put a lien on the property, so that if the property is sold during that time, we'll get paid."

"....or lose the money if the house is abandoned," I thought.

Still—what the City should do, only it can decide.

I tell you this tale as warning: In the case of City collections, no news is not good news.

If Baltimore City has recently (or not so recently) done any work in your neighborhood that you're responsible for, like re-paving the alley, then, according to Collections, a lien has already been placed on your house, even though you might not see a bill for six or eight years.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on June 5, 2002.