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The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission has proposed exempting residential properties from the threat of tax sale if unpaid water and sewer charges are below a still-unspecified amount.

The exemption would need approval from state lawmakers. If approved, the MetCom board could establish that dollar threshold by November, said the agency’s attorney, Jacquelyn Meiser.

MetCom has had the authority to take property to tax sale to collect unpaid accounts since the agency was created by state law in 1957. Every county’s water and sewer providers can take properties to tax sale, except for one — Dorchester — which is now seeking that authority, Meiser told the MetCom board members last Thursday.

MetCom’s tax sale authority was called into question this winter when the Hollywood home of 88-year-old Combs Toney was slated to be sold at auction for unpaid sewer bills. After waivers and other fee deferrals, Toney still owed $719 for sewer services to which he never connected.

The threat of tax sale was averted after others in the community paid his overdue bills and pledged to cover future charges.

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Dan Morris (R) and Southern Maryland state legislators have called for preventing people’s homes from going to tax sale because of delinquent water and sewer bills.

MetCom staff said they could not remember any case of someone’s home actually being sold at a tax sale because of overdue water and sewer bills.

“Mr. Toney may have been the closest anybody’s ever got to that,” MetCom board chairman Steven Willing said.

The list of delinquent properties heading to the March 7 tax sale because of overdue MetCom bills started at 130, said Rebecca Shick, MetCom chief financial officer, out of some 17,000 accounts. As of Thursday, the number was down 40.

“Every day we work out payment plans with folks,” Meiser said. “The fiscal clerks work out terms, and by and large, people honor them.”

Going to tax sale is “not a quick process. No one’s going to be taken by surprise by it,” Shick said. An account has to be in arrears for six months by October to be placed on the tax sale list in March and by the time of the actual tax sale, an account has been past due for a year, Meiser said.

“We don’t have a big problem because we go to tax sale,” said MetCom board member Mike Mummaugh.

“Mr. Toney’s case was unique,” Meiser said.

Toney’s issue was that he was not connected to sewer service because he uses his own septic system, board member Alice Gaskin said. People don’t want to connect to central water and sewer lines if they’re happy with their wells or septic systems, she said. “It’s the root of everything,” she said.

Connection deferrals can be addressed by the MetCom board, Meiser said. St. Mary’s County government has a task force working on the issue of who has to connect to central water and sewer lines and when, but Meiser noted the group is “no closer than where they were a year ago.”

“There will be another Mr. Toney and another Mr. Toney,” Gaskin said, until the connection issues are worked out.

Of the 40 properties still slated for tax sale this year, only four are occupied by their owners. Most of them are developer accounts, Meiser said.

If MetCom ends up setting a threshold amount before property is threatened with tax sale, someone could pay just enough to avoid that, but still be in arrears with MetCom. It’s “a calculated art,” Meiser said. “People’s bill-paying is not by accident.”

Using a district court order to collect overdue bills rather than the tax sale authority is “highly ineffective and you lose a lot of money in the process,” she said.

Losing the authority to threaten tax sale “could have a drastic impact on our accounts receivable, which is going to impact the rates,” said MetCom Director Dan Ichniowski.

Of the tax sale issue in general, he said, “I don’t think we’re hearing from the rest of the public. We have not heard from the rest of the county commissioners.”

“There is no perfect remedy,” Meiser said.

“Yes there is, a tax sale,” Ichniowski said.

jbabcock@somdnews.com