High valuation is no `windfall' for treasury

Assessments just cover inflation, official says

Will be spread over three years

Property values increased at fastest rate since 1990

January 04, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

While the highest assessments in more than a decade are arriving in the mail to one-third of Harford's property owners, the county isn't preparing for a major boost to its coffers.

"It helps the county grow revenues to cover inflation," said budget director John J. O'Neill Jr. "It's not a big windfall for the county. It doesn't give us a big pot of money."

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation, which reassesses one-third of the properties in each of the state's 24 jurisdictions each year, mailed out new assessments last week to more than 645,000 properties, 22,500 of which are in Harford, said Jerrald Simmers of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Property values increased at the fastest rate since 1990, state officials said in releasing the assessments. In Harford - where properties in the rural north, Havre de Grace and Joppatowne areas were reassessed - values rose an average of 25.5 percent, as compared with the statewide average of 36 percent.

The increase will be split over a three-year period, which means Harford property owners' annual increase is about 8.5 percent.

O'Neill said in calculating overall property tax increases, the county sticks with a revenue projection of about 5 percent to 6 percent a year.

"This is one piece of a multi-piece pie. It gets blended in with the total picture," said John Scotten, county treasurer. He said while the numbers continue an overall positive trend in property tax revenue, once the most current figures are averaged in with the other two-thirds of county properties, the revenue increase levels off.

Scotten said the average property tax revenue increase for the county for the past 10 years has been 5.3 percent.

The appreciating assessments are a double-edged sword for property owners, said Carole Bowen, government affairs director for the Harford County Association of Realtors.

"People are probably going to be upset with the increase, but it also shows their property value is going up," she said.

Simmers, assistant supervisor in the Harford County office of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, echoed Bowen.

"People want the value to go up, but they don't want their assessments to reflect that," he said.

Increase capped

Fourteen of the state's jurisdictions, including Harford, follow the state's annual increase cap of 10 percent, though other counties have limits of 2 percent to 5 percent.

Amey Epstein, director of the Harford County Housing Agency, said she was pleased to see the annual increase below the state cap, unlike several other counties, including Worchester, Carroll and Anne Arundel.

But, she added, as assessments are made in the central and southern areas of the county in the next two years - where most of the county's affordable housing is concentrated - her agency will be watching the results closely.

Harford County is divided into three assessment groups, Simmers said. The first group, which was reassessed this year, runs from Norrisville at the Baltimore County line to Havre de Grace across the rural northern tier, as well as areas around Joppatowne in the southwestern corner of the county.

The second group encompasses Bel Air and surrounding areas that lie roughly from Fallston to Churchville. The third group centers on the Aberdeen and Edgewood areas.

The essential question of a reassessment is how much the property and the land it sits on are worth, Simmers said.

"Land everywhere you go is going through the roof," he said, noting that most reassessed places likely had a $30,000 increase in land alone, and sometimes higher.

The assessment is affected by such factors as age, size, quality and amenities of the structure and the popularity of the community. The home style can also be a factor.

"Right now, the big item everybody wants is a two-story house," he said.

In past years, split-levels were prized, he said, and in others, expensive homes were shunned.

But not today. Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. reported in November that the average home price in Harford was $207,670.

Changing tastes

Bowen, who has been in the real estate business for more than four decades, said she recalls when developments such as Harford Estates, near C-Mart north of Bel Air, were sold in the late 1960s.

The ranchers there sold for about $19,900; today, those homes are priced in the low-$200,000 range.

The higher assessments also translate into higher equity for homeowners - and possibly a boost for home projects, Bowen said. "It's a good opportunity if people want to improve homes," she said.

Simmers said assessed prices and market prices often differ widely because of the three-year assessment phase-in, and the rising cost of land and homes in the county. "The prices are really going up so fast we have a hard time keeping up with them," Simmers said.

How to appeal an assessment

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