Tax foreclosure threat becomes latest hardship in Flint

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Fresh out of prison last summer, Jamal Johnson returned to his boarded-up home on the city’s east side and sought to rebuild his life.

His sister had watched the house, but what shocked Johnson, 37, was an unpaid water bill that spiked to a staggering $3,192. The majority of the bill was generated when he was locked up for weapons violations. If unpaid, according to Flint city ordinance, Johnson would lose his home.

Johnson was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who were in danger of having tax foreclosure proceedings start last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium on the tax liens — which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014.

But the temporary reprieve is in question. It faces an uncertain fate before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which monitors Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in April 2015 and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting.

Flint resident Joyce Wilson tells residents at a council meeting she is collecting signatures for a recall petition of Mayor Karen Weaver.

Outstanding water liens have become the latest hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis that was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

More than 100 residents showed up at last Wednesday’s raucous council meeting, upset and insulted that they could lose their homes after being charged for water they couldn’t drink and rarely, if ever, used. There was a May 19 deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance, but the officials approved a one-year reprieve in part to give them time to alter the law.

Some residents were slapped with tax liens after refusing to pay their water bill for years after developing skin rashes and seeing behavioral problems in their children. Then there are cases like Johnson’s.

“The house was boarded up when I came back,” said Johnson, who was arrested in 2012 and hadn’t been home until he was released on parole last June. “My sister kept going back and forth watching the house for me. But she said she wasn’t there. I’m like, why I’ve got to pay? I don’t understand it.”

If the council hadn’t acted, the city would have started enforcing the liens with foreclosure proceedings.

Maria Williams, 63, who lives on the city’s north side, told the council that she is dumbfounded that the city would put a lien on her house for the $1,000 owed for water that made her and her grandchildren sick.

“I’ve been on my own since I was 18, years ago, and never had a problem with paying the water bill,” said Williams, whose granddaughter, Deneika Booth, owes $1,110 for water. “Now I don’t feel like I should have to pay for this water.”

Williams blamed her problem in part on the state emergency manager who decided to switch from the Detroit area water system to the corrosive Flint River.

“And it was a cover-up,” she said. “People did know about this.”

The angst has led to a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and get other attention for the city.

The city is between a rock and a hard place, Weaver said. There is righteous residential anger over water they could not use, but the city still needs to collect bills to stay financially afloat and not fall back under state control, she said.

Weaver said she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law.”

“It’s not like something new has been put in place,” she said about the 1964 ordinance. “We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.”

The ordinance wasn’t enforced last year because Flint offered “credits” to its residents through state financing, city officials said. The state ended the credits at the end of February, noting that lead levels had fallen to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard.

Weaver met with Gov. Rick Snyder in Lansing in mid-February about getting an extension, but was rebuffed. She complained about getting “short notice” about the end of water bill credits, but the governor’s office said it told the city in mid-December it would likely stop the credits one month after federal water standards were met.

Weaver said she’s heard some stories about exorbitant bills like Johnson’s, and “we want those people to come to us so we can really investigate those and see what happened. We had somebody who had a crazy bill and found out there had been a leak going on.”

Edward Taylor, a former Flint council member and landlord in the city, has his own water lien story. He said he was hit with a $1,053 bill from a home he rented out to a woman he recently evicted. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up.

“I get home from out of town, and I get a water bill in my name for that particular house, and I’m like, why did I get a water bill, I don’t have water on in the city,” Taylor said. “Evidently the lady never turned in the water affidavit, and she got it turned on illegally. So what they want to do is charge me for it. I told them no.”

Taylor is promising to sue the city if he doesn’t get relief and the bill wiped away.

“That’s not the way it works,” he said, “not when I do everything that I’m supposed to do.”

After the moratorium vote, council President Kerry Nelson said: “the people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use.

“The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.”

The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us.”

“They created this,” Nelson said. “The government doesn’t get a free pass.”

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