Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez has stopped processing property water liens from the city of Toledo until the Bell administration addresses a problem in which homeowners are being slapped with delinquent utility bills from previous homeowners.
"They are wrongfully going after current homeowners and should be going after prior homeowners," Ms. Lopez said yesterday. "There are 173 water liens in question that I am going over, but there are a total of 541 that we have not put in to date since April 1."
That is in addition to more than 2,000 liens from the city filed in 2009 for which Ms. Lopez's staff is investigating the validity because of complaints from new homeowners.
"It has been clearly outlined that [the city's] billing and collection is so behind, we cannot assume they are properly placing the liens on properties," Ms. Lopez said. "Imagine you just moved in, purchased your first home, and this administration goes after you for a $7,000 bill and you never even lived in this home."
That was an extreme case of one individual, who does not wish to be identified, who purchased a home in the city.
"As the county auditor, I should not have to do their job, but I think it is correct for me to hold off on these liens until they get their billing problems corrected," Ms. Lopez said.
J.P. Smith, the man's attorney, said he purchased the home after foreclosure and had title work that showed no liens, but the city later filed the lien for a delinquent water bill of $7,149.
"He paid $9,800 for the house - it needed some work - and he planned on doing it to live in it," Mr. Smith said.
"There are people coming out of the woodwork who have said this has happened to them."
The city has been aggressively trying to collect some of the $13.3 million in delinquent water, sewer, storm water, and garbage bills it is owed, but most of those bills date back more than a year.
Tom Crothers, director of the Department of Public Utilities for the city, said he would prefer not to place liens on properties at which previous owners did not pay their water bills but said he has no choice.
"In the Toledo Municipal Code we have the duty and in the Ohio Revised Code, we have the option to collect for unpaid water, storm, sewer, and garbage charges," Mr. Crothers said. "That is a duty because if someone owes us money, and they don't pay us, they get a free ride and you and I, who pay, have to cover that through higher rates."
Mr. Crothers said he is "reviewing a number of recommendations to accelerate collections" while at the same time addressing Ms. Lopez's concerns.
He also said it is very unusual for a case in which a new homeowner gets notice of a lien from something the previous property owner did not pay.
Ms. Lopez said her office's attorneys have interpreted the city's law differently and said that the administration cannot place a lien on a property if the delinquent bills are from a previous owner.
She also said it is not as unusual as Mr. Crothers claims.
"I am very disturbed with their response and it takes a lot for me to say that publicly," she said.
"In this situation, they need to back off and review their billing and collection processes."
She said the administration of former mayor Carty Finkbeiner engaged in the same practice but that she waited until Mayor Mike Bell took office to ask him to address it.
Ms. Lopez said she has been frustrated by the city and the fact that two scheduled meetings with the mayor have been postponed.
Jen Sorgenfrei, a spokesman for Mayor Bell, said yesterday that the meeting with Ms. Lopez has been rescheduled.
Ms. Lopez added a warning for potential Toledo home buyers: "My point is to make sure the public is aware that if you buy a home in the city of Toledo, that the city, under the Bell administration, says it's fair to go after you for a bill for the water of a past owner, years after it has accrued, and you never even lived in the home."
Contact Ignazio Messina at: