Assessments rise, and tempers flare 'Mass appraisal' little understood

December 23, 1990|By Joel McCord

Jack Borchers was livid. There was "no way this frame hunka crap" was worth nearly $92,000, he raved, pointing his thumb back over his shoulder toward his two-bedroom rancher on Rolling View Avenue in Fullerton.

"This man doesn't know what he's doing," he stormed, pointing to the assessor who stood in front of him.

And Frank Rybak was stunned when assessors said the value of his 1.4-acre lot in Glen Arm had doubled, from $17,000 to $34,000, in the past three years. He conceded that the price they put on his house -- $132,700 -- was pretty accurate. But the value of the land? "That's a little crazy," he said.

It's December, and as sure as there are crowds in the malls searching for holiday gifts, there are cries of anguish from some of the 600,000 Maryland homeowners who have been told that the assessments on their homes have increased.

More than 100 angry taxpayers, encouraged by an article in this newspaper, called The Sun over two days last week to complain about their assessments. Some cited recent appraisals that varied from the value assessors had placed on their homes. But most argued about their incomes and public works projects such as the new stadium or light-rail line in Baltimore, indicating a widespread lack of understanding of the assessment system.

"It's way too high for my type of income," said a man who didn't leave his name on the newspaper's voice mail system.

"I've been a season ticket-holder for the last 10 years, but this stadium, this light-rail line, if it's gonna raise my taxes, the Orioles can go to Texas for all I care," groused George Tucker of Ellicott City.

The assessment on Mr. Tucker's four-bedroom, stone house went from $128,00 to $189,000. But he says proudly that he probably could get $200,000 or $240,000 for it if he were to put it on the market.

Real estate professionals, who are more sympathetic to assessors than is the general public, say assessors are hampered by working with incomplete and outdated information.

Assessments are based on "last year and the year before," explained Herbert Davis, owner of a real estate firm in Brooklandville. "So the net effect is that in a rising market you get a lower assessment than would normally be arrived at. And in a declining market, the shoe is on the other foot."

Taxpayer groups have complained in publications that assessors are ill-prepared to appraise property values and that the three-step appeal process is worthless, arguing that assessors often are imperious and unyielding.

Yet the assessment department notes that assessors take the same three appraisal courses required of bank appraisers and that they serve a six-year apprenticeship. Mr. Davis, who often helps homeowners appeal their assessments, said that those who prepare the necessary information "generally get a fair hearing."

Lloyd Jones, state supervisor of assessments, admitted that some assessors may need "sensitivity training." He estimated that about 7 percent of homeowners statewide appeal their assessments -- with the exception of Baltimore and Baltimore County, where the rates are higher -- and that 20 percent to 25 percent of them get some reduction.

Under Maryland law, the Department of Assessments and Taxation is charged with determining the market value of each property in the state and setting an assessment based on that value. 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.

"Basically, we look at the market sales," Mr. Jones explained. "When a house is built or sold, it's put on the records that the assessment office has. We're constantly comparing sales prices against our assessments."

And no matter what some may think, the department has "no agreements, no understandings . . . with any county executives regarding the tax rate," insisted William Saltzman, Mr. Jones' spokesman.

Even if the assessment department only sets values, homeowners find it hard to believe that the worth of their houses could possibly have increased as much as the assessors say it has in the three years since their last reassessment.

"The housing market's depressed," argued Walter Dumbroski, who was complaining about the $167,000 assessment on his house near West River in southern Anne Arundel County. "A year ago you could have gotten that here, but not now."

Yet real estate professionals say the "soft market" is not as bad as it has been reported.

Prices in the Baltimore region "have been fairly stable and even gone up reasonably," said Fletcher Hall, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

The real problem, he said, is with the confidence of the consumers. "It's difficult for someone to understand how they are getting a higher assessment when he hears about declining this and declining that."

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