Federal Hill homeowners vexed by soaring property assessments

Community leaders urge concerted appeals to state

January 08, 2003|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Leaders of a Federal Hill homeowners group, angry over the prospect of paying thousands of dollars more in property taxes, are urging appeals of the state's latest assessments of their homes.

About 200 residents of the neighborhood met last night in a mostly informational session at Holy Cross Church on East West Street.

"Our goal is to have more fairness in the assessment process," said Kirsten Sandberg, president of the Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association.

"We want to send the message to assessment officials and to city legislators that there needs to be uniformity [in property assessments]. ... We want everybody to appeal."

Notices mailed last month showed the largest increase in property values in the city in more than a decade -- an average of 7.7 percent for each of the next three years.

City officials hope the higher assessments will lead to more revenue and a jolt to the economy. But to Federal Hill homeowners, it just means higher property taxes.

Federal Hill community leaders said the only recourse they have is to file appeals with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Homeowners have until Feb. 10 to appeal assessments, which are phased in over a three-year period.

The state agency physically inspects one-third of Maryland's properties each year. This year, it included the southern third of the city, covering Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton.

The department's director, Ronald W. Wineholt, who sent a representative to the meeting, said earlier in the day that state law requires it to uniformly inspect properties and assess them based on market value.

"We hope that as they [homeowners] review their assessment notices, it will be evident our assessments reflect current market values of properties," Wineholt said.

But homeowners, including Sandberg, said the assessment standards are inconsistent and should be simplified.

They pointed out that the "homestead credit" which sets a limit on the increased property value that the city and state can tax, does not apply to properties purchased in the preceding fiscal year.

Last year, about 3 percent of city homeowners whose properties were assessed filed appeals. Wineholt said it is too early to tell whether his department has received an increase in appeals this year. Notices of assessments were mailed Dec. 27.

Some homeowners at last night's meeting argued that higher assessments discourage people from moving to the city.

They also said they do not want to pay more taxes for city services that they feel are inadequate.

"The bottom line is, what services am I getting based on this large increase in taxes?" said Jennifer Ginn, whose two-story home in Federal Hill will jump in value to $169,000 by 2005.

"I just don't see the benefit of paying the higher amount of taxes."

City officials point out that the assessment caps limit the amount of property value that can be taxed.

Maryland has a statewide 10 percent assessment cap, meaning the taxed amount of an owner-occupied property cannot increase by more than 10 percent in one year.

The city, which like other local governments is allowed to adopt lower cap levels, has a 4 percent limit.

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