Officials brace for taxpayer reaction to state's new property assessments

December 07, 1990|By Joel McCord

Angry homeowners raised such a ruckus over their sharply increased property assessments last January that they forced changes in state laws designed to soften the impact of those ballooning values on tax bills.

Now, as a new round of higher assessment notices is mailed throughout the state, the question becomes: Will they do it again?

Not likely, say the leaders of tax revolts in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

After losing battles over local tax caps, property owners have begun to realize that they should focus on government spending rather than assessments, said Robert R. Denny, head of Montgomery County's Fairness in Taxation.

"The assessment, by itself, doesn't mean anything," he said. "People didn't understand that last year. Now, they do, and they know where to look -- at the county government."

Besides, added Robert C. Schaeffer, president of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, limits on the amount of assessment increases on which homeowners can be taxed have "muted the outcry."

But Harold Lloyd, one of the leaders of Taxpayers United in Baltimore County, disagreed. "They're wrong," he said. "Those assessment notices won't be out two days until I'll start getting calls asking if I can come to civic meetings to talk about assessments."

Mr. Lloyd, a retired spokesman for the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, said he already has spoken to groups in Perry Hall and Middle River, who contacted him in October after assessors had been through their neighborhoods.

The shock waves from the new assessment notices, which are to be mailed Monday, "may not be as volatile as last year," he said. "But I'm sure you're going to have a revolt . . . until we get government spending under control and get the government off our backs."

One-third of the 1.8 million properties in Maryland are reassessed every year. The assessments -- the full cash values of the properties -- are phased in over three years, and homeowners are taxed on 40 percent of that.

Lloyd Jones, Maryland's chief tax assessor, said Wednesday that property values had climbed sharply in most of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore over the last three years despite a recent slump in the housing market. Only in the last year has the real estate market softened, he said.

The notices to be mailed out next week will reflect the market value of properties at the end of 1989.

Despite the increased assessments, homeowners should be comforted by the changes in the assessment process the General Assembly adopted during its last session, Mr. Jones said.

The legislature set a 10 percent cap on annual increases in tax assessments on owner-occupied properties and allowed the counties to set lower limits.

Calvert County allows no increase in the assessments of properties subject to taxation. Caps have been set at 4 percent in Baltimore County, 5 percent in Kent County and 6 percent in Harford County. Baltimore City is on its way toward approving a 4 percent cap.

In Anne Arundel, Mr. Schaeffer said, the assessment cap -- which probably will be 10 percent -- combined with a promise by County Executive Robert R. Neall to hold the increase in property tax revenues to 5 percent would reduce chances of a taxpayer revolt.

"You'll see some grumbling and this and that, but a combination of mitigating factors will probably hold it down to that, rather than activism," he said.

But local tax assessors aren't sure.

"Last year was quite unusual," said Robert Dowling, supervisor of assessments in Baltimore County, where a record 15,000 homeowners appealed their assessments.

"This year, I hope people understand the application of the cap."

But the cap won't protect everyone, Mr. Lloyd insisted. And many who are confused by the assessment process "are suspicious of their government."

"They feel they're being tricked, but they don't know how," he said. "And that's why they're going to revolt."

How to appeal your assessment

* Return the notice of appeal that is included with your assessment notice by the deadline. This time, it's Jan. 24, 45 days after the notices are mailed.

* Obtain a copy of the work sheet the assessor used and the prices on comparable properties sold in your neighborhood last year, both of which are available in your local assessment office.

* Make sure the information on the work sheet about the size of your house, number of bedrooms and improvements is correct. Also check the math and the prices of the houses your assessor considered comparable to yours, and be sure those comparisons are valid.

* Focus on things that diminish the value of your house -- a leaky vTC roof, a cracked foundation, an overflowing septic system -- as if you were a potential buyer haggling over the price.

* Remember that tax bills and government spending are irrelevant in an assessment appeal hearing. Don't waste your time raising those issues. The value of your property is all that is in question.

* If you are dissatisfied with the results of the first hearing, you can ask the local tax assessment appeal board to review the case. After that, you can appeal to the Maryland Tax Court, then to the Circuit Court.

Source: State Department of Assessments and Taxation

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