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Baltimore's Pro Stadiums Are Rescued From Lien Sale; Overdue Water Bills Blamed

A computer error is being blamed for putting Baltimore's baseball and NFL stadium into a tax sale queue, the city says. The unusual circumstances could have exposed Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium to possible foreclosure from winners of a tax sale of less than $70,000 in debt.

The stadiums, each of which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were ensnared by Baltimore's rule that puts owner-occupied properties into the tax sale if a delinquent account holder owes the city at least $750.

While the odd situation set off a series of what-if questions about how close the stadiums might have come to facing foreclosure, it also renewed talk in Baltimore about the wider impact of tax sales on regular citizens and the need to improve the system.

"I have an awful lot of elderly ladies who have the same issues as the stadium authority," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke tells The Baltimore Sun.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey pointed out another issue with the system, saying he's getting reports from high-rise buildings that say they're not receiving bills from the city's Department of Public Works.

The stadiums' debt had accrued amid a breakdown in communication between Baltimore's utility agency and the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Sunreports. The stadium authority says it wasn't given a recent bill for water and sewer use; there have also been reports that the authority had disputed earlier bills. It seems a separate mistake then placed the two stadiums into the tax sale.

"Properties owned by the Maryland Stadium Authority are exempt from the city tax sale process," the Department of Public Works said in a statement cited by the Sun. "The properties went to tax sale due to a computer coding error."

The error evidently went unnoticed until Baltimore held its annual tax sale this month. The winning bidders will be reimbursed, the Sun reports. According to the city's website, a property is normally sent to the tax sale only after owners have failed to respond to two warnings.

In Baltimore's lien auction system, a winning bidder "receives a tax sale certificate from the City which gives the bidder the right to obtain ownership of the property by filing a tax sale foreclosure lawsuit," the city says. The system also allows owners to redeem the property by reimbursing the bidder — although fees and other costs can be added to the original amount.

In a 2015 story about Baltimore's tax sale, member station WYPR reported that more than 2,800 tax sale cases were filed in one recent year. In addition to complete transfers of property, the system is blamed for creating "zombie properties" that exist in a legal limbo in which lien purchasers file and win foreclosures but the deeds remain in the original holders' hands.

NPR has sought comment from the agencies involved and will update this post with any response.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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