Passing the buck

September 20, 1990

When William Donald Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore, he and fellow local officials passed along to the state the disagreeable chore of assessing property for taxation purposes. Now, as governor, he is contemplating giving it back.

He shouldn't.

The Department of Assessments and Taxation is in some ways a misnomer, in that the job of appraising the value of a property is easily confused with the tax rate. The department's new secretary, Lloyd Jones, makes this point by taking pains to refer to the department's staff as appraisers, not assessors.

Determining the tax rate is an inherently political task, and the responsibility rightfully rests with elected local officials. Appraising the value of property, however, should be an objective process, not one tainted by local politics. That's one important reason the appraisal function was relegated to the state in the first place -- and why it should stay there.

Transferring the appraisal responsibility to local jurisdictions would only impose another burden on already strained resources. It also would complicate efforts to improve the training of appraisers, including their ability to deal politely with the public. The move would not solve the problems that are producing taxpayer revolts. Meanwhile, the appraisal process would only become more political and less fair.

It's true that rising property values combined with the increasing costs of government services have produced rising tax bills. But property owners' real quarrel is with the tax bill, which is largely determined by local jurisdictions, not with the increased value of their homes.

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