Schaefer may try to shift tax assessments to localities

September 19, 1990|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff Larry Carson and Marina Sarris contributed to this story.

FREDERICK -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer says he may seek legislative approval to shift the responsibility of assessing taxable property from the state level to local jurisdictions.

Schaefer's latest pitch to reorganize the state bureaucracy if he wins re-election came yesterday while he was campaigning here on the opening day of the Frederick Fair.

But as word of the governor's idea to restructure assessment duties spread to various county government offices, some high-placed officials sniffed as though the notion were better left in the fairgrounds cattle barns.

"I don't think it's a good idea because you will have real uneven treatment throughout the state, which is why they gave it to the state to begin with," said Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer.

"I think when you start to localize it, you start to politicize it," Lighthizer added. "You end up with friends of county executives getting lower assessments than those who don't know him."

Schaefer said he is not fully committed to the as yet informal plan, but is willing to consider it if enough lawmakers lend their support.

"I haven't made up my mind," he said, "but that's going to be part of the study of the reorganization of the state. I've had some members of the legislature strongly suggest it . . . because they say the state gets blamed for assessments and the tax rates when it isn't the responsibility of the state."

The State Department of Assessments and Taxation was created in 1959, but it was not until 1973 that the state took over the complete administrative duties and costs of running the county-based offices.

The centralization of assessment activities throughout the state was intended to ensure that all similar kinds of taxable property in the counties and Baltimore are assessed under local and uniform values. The state determines assessment values while local governments set tax rates.

Most real estate is assessed once over a three-year cycle with state workers re-evaluating a third of all property each year.

Schaefer said he first faced the debate over which level of government should control assessments when he was mayor of Baltimore.

"When I was mayor, they talked me into turning assessments over [to the state] . . . ," he said. "I agreed that assessments should go back up to the state where you'd have uniform assessments. I'm not so sure I was right."

The debate raged anew during the last session of the General Assembly when lawmakers, hoping to pacify homeowner groups angry over steep assessment increases, voted to place a 10 percent annual cap on residential property. Some legislators argued then that assessment duties should be handled on the local level.

"I'm going to really look at it," Schaefer said yesterday. "I think a study will show it should stay with the state, but I'm not so sure I'm going to agree with the study after I get it."

Schaefer said he has not discussed the idea with Lloyd W. Jones, who took over the state assessments agency following the resignation of Gene L. Burner last spring, but that he is prepared to listen to dissent.

"He is free to say whether he thinks it's right or wrong," Schaefer said.

The governor's comments on the assessments and taxation agency came a day after he proposed other government changes while he was in Washington for a White House ceremony.

Agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are too big and too unwieldy and could be split in half, Schaefer said Monday.

Schaefer also said it might be desirable to make Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Maryland Port Administration separate agencies reporting directly to the governor's office instead of to a Cabinet secretary.

Reacting to the governor's comments on assessments, Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen said he had never heard such a proposal before.

"We are held accountable," the executive said, referring to the public's perception of its treatment by state assessment employees based in Towson.

"The important issue is the funding," he said. The executive said he would want to see the details of any such proposed change to make sure that the county is not given the responsibility for the office with no control over its operations.

Other sources within the county government made similar points, noting that Rasmussen administration has taken months of bitter criticism this year from taxpayers angry about their assessments and who are now fighting to roll back their property taxes to 1989 levels and limit increases to 2 percent a year.

These sources say that the state assessment employees are sometimes rude toward county residents and that since the office is located in Towson, the county government gets the blame.

Also caught off guard by the governor's suggestion was Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. But Clarke, who was in Baltimore County for a meeting yesterday, said the idea may have some merit because voter-taxpayer revolts are better handled on the local level.

"I think the assessment process is basically a good system," said Anne Arundel County's Lighthizer.

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