Sewer billing dis­pute deep­ens

Apart­ment com­plex owner says mis­placed dec­i­mal led to $560K county over­charge

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Kneze­vich

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.

Wood­holme’s at­tor­neys

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.

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