Sewer billing dispute deepens
Apartment complex owner says misplaced decimal led to $560K county overcharge
The owner of a Baltimore County apartment complex says the county charged his company more than 75 times the proper amount for sewer service in a continuing dispute making its way through the court system.
Adam Geller says he has overpaid more than $560,000 for two years of sewer service and related fees for the Woodholme Manor Apartments in Milford Mill. He is seeking a refund plus interest. The dispute, which has dragged on since 2016, is among other conflicts the county has faced over the way it handles appeals of sewer fees.
“This has been a gigantic mess of a headache that has impacted my business,” said Geller, a New Jersey-based managing member of Woodholme DNB Associates LLC, which owns the property.
Maryland Tax Court recently ruled in the county’s favor, saying Woodholme didn’t follow the correct procedure for challenging the sewer fees. The company — which contends that the county never gave it proper notice of how to appeal the charges — has asked a county Circuit Court judge to review the decision.
Like other county properties, the apartment complex receives water from the city’s system, which handles water billing. But county government oversees billing for sewer service, calculating it based on the previous year’s water consumption as reported by the city. Those charges appear on the county’s property tax bills.
Errors have plagued Baltimore’s water billing system. In this case, the problem started with an incorrect decimal point when the city calculated the apartment building’s water bill, according to Geller’s attorneys.
“The problem with the city water bill was that they put the decimal in the wrong place ” resulting in a whopping water bill, attorney Brett Ingerman said in an interview.
That, in turn, led to “astronomical” fees for sewer service, Woodholme attorneys wrote in court filings. The city later acknowledged a clerical error and eventually lowered the water bill — which should have resulted in the county’s reducing the sewer fees, the lawyers contend.
“Instead, the County has doubled down
on its position and stonewalled [the company’s] attempts to resolve this matter,” they wrote.
Sean Naron, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said officials would not comment beyond what they’ve said in court filings due to the ongoing litigation.
The disputed sewer charges appeared on tax
bills for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Woodholme ultimately paid the fees to avoid a tax sale on the 177-unit complex near Old Milford Mill Road.
In court documents, county attorneys say Woodholme didn’t file a timely appeal. They refer to Geller as “a seasoned MidAtlantic commercial real estate developer” who has dealt with local government officials regarding water bills before.
“It is preposterous to suggest he was denied due
process,” they wrote.
The county lawyers said Geller’s company should have filed an appeal with the county Department of Public Works director, and then to the county Board of Appeals. Instead, the company paid the fees and later requested a refund from the county. Then it filed an appeal with the state tax court when the county declined.
The tax court sided with the county in a Nov. 19 decision.
wrote in court documents that the county did not provide proper notice of how to appeal. They point out that it was not until this spring that the County Council passed legislation requiring county tax bills to “conspicuously state” the procedure for appealing a sewer fee.
Councilman Julian Jones sponsored the measure after homeowners complained to the council that officials wouldn’t reduce their sewer fees even when the city adjusted
their water bills.
Jones said he and other council members heard from constituents who didn’t know how to appeal a disputed sewer fee. The legislation also extended the time to appeal, from 90 days to 240 days.
“It would appear as though Baltimore County takes an extremely hard line on these issues,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.
Jones said Geller has more resources than the homeowners that have sought his help, but he believes the situation is unfair and hopes the county can resolve the dispute.
“Sure, he can afford an attorney. Sure, he can fight,” Jones said. “But why should he have to?”
The city and county plan to undertake a “comprehensive business process review” of water and sewer services issues. The county is seeking a consulting firm to conduct the review, with bids due Dec. 19.