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Unpaid sewer bills put homes in foreclosure

With her home heading for foreclosure, barber Brenda Grimm-Bear is working to dig herself out of a financial hole caused by her inability to pay her county sewer bill. She owns Brenda's Barber Shop at 21 S. Pines Road. (Colin Mulvany)
With her home heading for foreclosure, barber Brenda Grimm-Bear is working to dig herself out of a financial hole caused by her inability to pay her county sewer bill. She owns Brenda's Barber Shop at 21 S. Pines Road. (Colin Mulvany)

Brenda Grimm-Bear is facing the loss of her cozy home on North Willow Road in Spokane Valley over a $5,279 lien for unpaid sewer bills.

She is one of at least four Spokane County property owners at risk of foreclosure next Friday in the first-ever effort by the county to get tough on delinquent sewer bills.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do,” she said in an interview this week.

“It’s a frightening thought that could be a reality soon.”

Grimm-Bear said she has struggled financially for years raising her three children as a single mom.

She had a major setback last March when she developed a pulmonary embolism and couldn’t work while she recovered.

Grimm-Bear operates Brenda’s Barber Shop at 21 S. Pines Road and relies on a steady stream of customers at $13 a cut ($12 for seniors). She supplements her income by raising puppies, she said.

“I go to work and I hope people show up,” she said.

Grimm-Bear faces a deadline of next Thursday to pay off the lien amount.

She said she used money that could have gone to pay her sewer bill on other debts, reducing them by $18,000 in recent years.

Spokane County has scheduled a foreclosure auction for next Friday at 10 a.m. in the Commissioners Assembly Room in the lower level of the Public Works Building.

A year ago, the county had 1,850 unpaid sewer bills subject to lien, totaling $3.2 million. That amount was reduced to $2 million within a few months after letters were sent to property owners with liens.

Since then, the county has recovered about $2.5 million in unpaid sewer bills. But new liens are being filed on other accounts. As of Thursday, there were 1,609 liens worth $2.5 million.

County commissioners voted last February to issue notices and begin the process of foreclosure. County officials decided to take action on 100 properties with the highest unpaid bills.

In April, the county announced it was teaming up with SNAP in Spokane to provide assistance to property owners facing foreclosure. Low-interest loans have been available to pay off sewer liens, and SNAP has a relocation program for anyone who loses their home.

Grimm-Bear said she was told she didn’t qualify for the loan program but said she planned to inquire again.

Spokane County last year marked completion of 30 years of work to bring sewers to Spokane Valley to protect the region’s sole source of drinking water – the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer that flows underground from North Idaho.

The $327 million sewer project was controversial and met resistance from residents who saw it as too costly.

Grimm-Bear believes the county has made her situation more difficult by charging 8.1 percent interest on unpaid bills and adding penalties for not paying on time. “The county is not interested in working with anybody,” she said.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the owners facing foreclosure had plenty of chances to pay their bills. “What did you think was going to happen?” he asked of delinquent property owners.

Grimm-Bear also faces costs stemming from the foreclosure action.

The minimum bid for the property is the lien amount. Any money received by the county above that amount can be returned to the former property owner or mortgage company under certain conditions.

Some of the property owners facing foreclosure have moved into bankruptcy court for protection. Others are challenging the foreclosures in county Superior Court. Some owners are coming up with money from wherever they can to pay off the lien amounts, county officials said.

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