Six real estate title insurance companies filed suit this week asking the D.C. Superior Court to force the D.C. government to issue water bills within 10 days of any request for water meter readings.
"We reluctantly filed this suit, but we've been living with this too long and we decided it's time somebody did something about it," said Samuel R. Gillman, president of the Columbia Real Estate Title Insurance Co.
The suit claims that delays in water bills cause the title insurers, who conduct property sale closings, to lose large amounts of money. Since the District can place a lien on property if water bills are unpaid, title insurance companies keep a sum of money in escrow to cover the water bill and insure that property being sold does not have a lien against it.
Although the D.C. Code states that water bills are payable twice a year, the suit charges, many water bills are not issued for several years.
The suit lays the blame for the situation on "maladministration" in the office of the water registrar, Edward M. Scott, who is named as a codefendant in the suit, "There is no way in which plaintiffs or others can verify the amount of water charges due (for a property) prior to conducting a settlement," the suit said.
"We just want the District of Columbia to do (its) job," Gillman said.
Scott said his office would not comment on the suit until he had an opportunity to consult with the Corporation Counsel.His superior, environmental services director Herbert L. Tucker, said a catch-up schedule put into effect June 1 is "right on schedule."
"This catch-up schedule should allow us to have all bills in the mail Sept. 2" Tucker said. He said the special schedule was started because "the more I tried to piecemeal and patch it, it just wasn't getting anywhere."
The plaintiffs claim in their suit that home buyers are theoretically "deprived of clear title to property they have purchased" because of the unclear situation created by potentially outstanding water charges.
The key to the problem is the fact that water is a lien on real estate in the District. This is not the case in Virginia, and in Maryland water bills are generally received promptly, even though water can cause a lien to be placed on property there.
The city's water revenue division has recently come fire from residents with high and widely disparate water bills. Until this year, the city's approximately 120,000 water and sewer customers received bills every six months, but administrative errors resulted in a huge backlog, and some customers were eliminated from the billing process for years at a time.
This year, an 11-month schedule was instituted.
Joining Gillman's company in the suit are the District Realty Title Insurance Corp., the Lawyers Title Insurance Corp., the Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co., the Stewart Title Insurance Agency, Inc., and the Chicago Title Insurance Co.
The six companies are asking the court to rule that water bills cannot be a lien on property in D.C. unless there has been a bill from the water registrar.