Minding his neighbors' real estate assessments

Appeals: A Baltimore County man creates a minor furor when he seeks to increase taxes for 450 homeowners.

November 27, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Charles Keeny wants to raise your taxes.

At least that's what 450 Baltimore County homeowners discovered this week when they opened their mail from the county Department of Assessments explaining that Keeny -- using a little-known state law -- had filed hundreds of appeals on properties he believed weren't assessed high enough.

The result: a lot of angry residents and a flood of telephone calls to the department's Towson office. Even though the 78-year-old Loch Raven resident and longtime tax protester has withdrawn his appeals, there's still plenty of confusion.

"We're angry, but we're also pretty perplexed," said Dierdre Huddles, a Glyndon resident. "My husband was so annoyed. It's a very strange thing to do. Why would someone do that?

"We also wondered, who can do that to you?"

Almost anyone, according to state law.

In Maryland, real estate is reassessed every three years. Baltimore County sends out more than 90,000 reassessment notices each year. Using mass appraising techniques, the county values each property according to the average sale price of properties sold in the neighborhood.

When owners feel the department's estimate of their property value is wrong, they have the right to appeal. The department receives about 3,500 of those appeals every year as homeowners try to get their taxes lowered. Few, if any, ask to have their taxes increased.

But according to the Annotated Code of Maryland under Tax Property Article Section 14-503, any taxpayer, county, municipal corporation or the attorney general may file a third-party appeal of the value assigned to any property within the state.

That is the law that Keeny apparently stumbled across.

"In all my time here, we have never had a third-party appeal," said Robert L. Dowling, who has been supervisor of the county department of assessments for 25 years. "In Mr. Keeny's benign, innocent way, he has opened up a hornet's nest. My phone has been ringing off the hook.

"There is nothing that stirs up emotions more than government and taxes," Dowling said. "It is most unusual to simply ask that hundreds of property values increase."

Keeny, who lives in a tidy, $80,000 brick rowhouse off Loch Raven Boulevard, declined to comment this week.

For more than a decade, Keeny has visited Dowling's office, filing repeated appeals to decrease the assessed value of his own house.

During the past 3 1/2 years, Keeny has shown up in the office at least once a week for a few hours each time to scrutinize property sales, Dowling said. Keeny compared the market value of the property to the assessed value.

And he contacted dozens of political figures, from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, hoping to win support for his belief that many county properties were under-assessed.

His appeals included homes from Perry Hall to Randallstown that range in price from $100,000 to $1 million. They also included homeowners such as actress Jada Pinkett and her $325,000 home in Reisterstown and William L. Jews, the head of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and his $1 million home in Pikesville.

It also includes everyday people like the Huddles, who paid $262,500 for their house in 1995, and Maureen D'Angelo, who bought her Reisterstown home the same year for $278,000.

"Oh, we were so happy to get the letter," D'Angelo said sarcastically about Keeny's efforts. "We wrote a couple thank-you notes to the guy, and we've included him in our will. We were really surprised someone could mess with you like that."

Dowling suspects that Keeny withdrew the appeals when he realized that as the petitioner he had to sit through 450 hearings and show substantial evidence that a property needed to be reassessed.

Dowling said he told Keeny that, in most cases, the department's appraisals were only 5 percent to 10 percent lower than the actual sale price -- which allows for real estate market fluctuations.

Even though Keeny has backed off, many homeowners are still incensed.

"The scoundrel," said Josiah Willard, who paid $860,000 for his house in Owings Mills. "I feel like I have a secret enemy that I didn't even know about. The government does a perfectly good job of taxing me. I don't need a vigilante out there."

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