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The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission says its billing practices “are effective and necessitate no amendment,” in a response last week to Southern Maryland lawmakers.

However, the water and sewer agency did offer two possible exemptions from taking delinquent property owners to tax sale, which would need to be incorporated by state law.

A Jan. 23 letter from Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), chairman of the St. Mary’s County legislative delegation, asked MetCom for other alternatives than taking a person’s home to tax sale to collect delinquent bills. “The members of the delegation do not want individual homeowners to be subject to losing their homes,” he wrote.

Combs Toney, 88, was scheduled to have his Hollywood home go to tax sale next month for an overdue accrued bill of $719 for sewer services he never connected into. The move to tax sale was halted when Todd Eberly, an associate professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, paid the balance.

Someone has since prepaid Toney’s future sewer bills for an undisclosed period of time, and that person wishes to remain anonymous, said MetCom Director Dan Ichniowski.

The public local laws of St. Mary’s County state MetCom’s “connection charges shall be treated as county taxes and be advertised in the same manner as and with county taxes.” MetCom was established by state law in 1957.

MetCom’s Jan. 31 response said only a few customer accounts actually end up at the county’s tax sale and very few of them are owner occupied. While satisfied with the billing mechanisms in place, MetCom’s staff did offer two proposals to exempt property owners from going to tax sale:

• Properties which are owner-occupied by persons 80 and older could be exempted from a MetCom tax sale so long as they are not past due for county taxes as well.

• All properties past due for MetCom charges less than $800 could be exempted from tax sale so long as not overdue for county taxes as well.

Either of those exemptions would have kept Toney’s property from going to tax sale.

“Be assured that MetCom staff and Board of Commissioners share in your concern over the loss of any property due to delinquency, and significant effort is put forth to minimize, to the fullest extent possible, the number of properties which are actually sold each year,” said MetCom’s letter, which was signed by Ichniowski; Rebecca Shick, chief financial officer; and Jacquelyn Meiser, legal counsel and public relations officer.

Of the 130 MetCom accounts slated for tax sale this year, 74 have been removed since bills were paid. “As it stands now, 56 accounts out of 16,570 total MetCom accounts will proceed to tax sale,” the agency said. The unpaid balance of those 56 accounts is $206,319, of which some $154,000 come from unimproved developer-owned accounts.

“In all likelihood, something far fewer than 56 accounts will actually be sold at the 2014 sale, as many of these 56 remaining accounts will be paid between now and the day of the tax sale,” MetCom wrote.

The letter said MetCom allows charges and connections to be deferred in cases for income-eligible customers, based on the criteria of the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. In Toney’s case, his income exceeded that threshold, Meiser said in interviews, and several extensions and deferments were granted along the way in his situation in recent years.

Unlike other utilities or companies that can terminate services for nonpayment, it’s not so easy to shut off water or sewer. “Although MetCom can, and does on a monthly basis, turn off water service for non-payment, it is essentially logistically impossible to terminate sewer service because of the corresponding public health hazards,” MetCom wrote.

Toney’s home never was connected to sewer as required, and he still uses his own septic system.

MetCom’s ability to put a lien on a property for unpaid bills is “the real legislative teeth,” staff wrote. “If the Code is amended to remove the lien requirement for past-due water and sewer charges, MetCom will be left with no effective fee collections mechanism.” Staff added that personal judgments from district court “are not an effective means of debt collection.”

“A decrease in collectible user fees will result in reduced revenue from user charges. Greater uncertainty over the receipt of user-charge revenues will cause user charges to increase,” MetCom wrote.

With a current operating budget of $13.5 million, MetCom’s residential customers on both central water and sewer pay $79.97 a month, up from $55.08 a month in 2007. User rates have increased every year since 2007 as infrastructure is maintained and new systems are added.

County Commissioner Dan Morris (R), who advocated on behalf of Toney, said Tuesday, “MetCom’s response does not solve the problem. They skirt this.” He said he disagreed about the matter of collections. “The court system is very adequate and appropriate to deal with this,” he said.

“If there is a hardship, the homeowner would not be put under that kind of duress” of a tax sale. “Family circumstances should be considered,” he said.

Bohanan said Thursday, “We’re going to sit down and figure this out as a delegation. We wanted [MetCom] input. There’s a lot in between.”

jbabcock@somdnews.com