Flint City Council Agrees to End Policy Imposing Tax Liens On Homes with Unpaid Water Bills

Flint residents paid some of the highest water rates in America, even after the city’s water became contaminated. (Photo by Jake May /MLive)

Residents in Flint, Mich., will no longer face the threat of losing their homes due to unpaid water bills, thanks to a recent vote by the Flint City Council.

Council members on Thursday, May 17, voted to place a one-year moratorium on the city’s policy of imposing tax liens on homes with outstanding water bills, Michigan Radio reported. Council President Kerry Nelson said the decision came after his office was barraged with angry phone calls from residents who can’t afford to pay the high water bills and those who simply refused to pay for still undrinkable water.

“Too numerous to tell you how many, the calls have been coming in,” Nelson said. “Enough is enough. I have made up my mind tonight to do what I need to do for the people who elected me.”

During a heated council meeting Wednesday, May 17, residents griped about being forced to pay hundreds of dollars for water that still can’t be used without a filter or risk their homes being foreclosed. The City of Flint put more than 8,000 residents on notice earlier this month, threatening tax liens on their homes if they failed to pay their overdue water bills.

As previously reported, the warning letters were mailed just weeks after state officials axed the program helping residents pay their water bills after the city’s water system was tainted with lead. Residents were given until May 19 to pay their overdue bills.

“You are not going to take my property for this stupid-ass water,” resident Lucille Williams, who had a tax lien placed against her home to cover $1,800 in overdue water bills between 2014 and 2016, told Flint council members. “It’s poisoned. I don’t know why you’re not as outraged as we are.”

State officials and human rights groups also pushed back against the tax liens, arguing that residents shouldn’t be bullied into paying for unsafe water. The ACLU of Michigan, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund penned a strongly worded letter to city officials Tuesday, May 16, demanding that Flint halt its efforts to place tax liens on properties with overdue bills.

“The already significant trauma experienced by Flint residents is only compounded by the City’s issuance of notices about property liens on their homes for delinquent water bills,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss, who authored the letter. “The moral and ethical issues are clear. No one should be expected to pay for water that is not safe, and has caused so much physical, psychological and financial damage.”

“In a city where residents have been crying out for justice, even more injustice is being proposed,” she added.

Despite the pushback, city officials maintained that residents should pay for the water they’ve been using. While more than 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line, they city also has been struggling to make ends meet as it scrambles to repair its crumbling water system.

“We are in a tough situation, but customers were still using the water for other things like laundry and dishes,” Al Mooney of Flint’s treasury department told BuzzFeed News. “We have to have that money come back.”

Payment of all 8,000 of the bills would ultimately earn the city close to $6 million, Mooney said.

Flint officials repeatedly stressed that the notices were for water and sewer charges, which weren’t affected by the contamination crisis, and claimed that “the process involving the lien transfer to tax bills is routine,” Buzzfeed News reported.

Still, many residents disagree.

“We’ve been paying for water that has zero value,” Melissa Mays, who also received a lien notice, said during Wednesday’s council meeting.

“It’s not normal, it’s extortion.”

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