In an effort to provide tax relief to homeowners, Republican Sen. Barry Glassman has filed a bill to freeze at current levels those properties due for re-assessment in 2009 and to recalculate assessments completed in the last five years so that those reflect today's market values.
The proposal would mean the properties along the Route 40 corridor would remain at the assessment level established three years ago rather than go through the process, scheduled to begin in January and likely to show an increase in value.
The Bel Air area, assessed earlier this year, would benefit from revisions under the bill. North Harford residents would not have to wait until 2010 to receive an assessment that is more in line with diminished home values.
Glassman would also like statewide assessments to occur annually rather than on the three-year cycle now in place.
"If we had annual assessments, they would be more market-based," he said. "The current economy dictates a rollback in assessments, especially in areas where real estate is bottoming out. Some of these homes were assessed at the height of the real estate boom."
Since he announced his intention to file the bill, Glassman has received phone calls and e-mails supporting his efforts, he said. Many have come from the Bel Air area, which was hit with higher assessments this year, he said. He heard from several North Harford seniors living on fixed incomes who are in homes that are paid for but with a monthly tax bill that is as high as their old mortgages.
"Every dollar matters in this economy," he said. "We have to help people out. State officials are saying home values are not falling but houses are not selling and home values, particularly in Harford County, are dropping significantly."
Republican Del. Susan K. McComas, leader of the Harford delegation, said the senator's bill has merit and will be "a good vehicle to get a discussion started on this issue.
"Any relief that can be given should be given," she said. "The General Assembly really needs to look at this really hard."
But she said she is concerned that the bill would mean decreased revenues for towns and counties that rely on property taxes for about half of their revenue.
"With this bill, jurisdictions would get even less revenue," she said. "How do we do more with less?"
C. John Sullivan, director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, has yet to see the bill, but questions its constitutionality. State law requires uniformity in the assessments process, he said.
"It could distort the uniformity of assessment process," he said.
Every year 220 state assessors review one-third of Maryland's 2.2 million properties, including any new construction. Increases can be phased in over the three-year period.
Property owners also have the right to appeal, and more than 1,000 do so every year, he said. In addition, many qualify for various tax credits.
"There are already many safeguards in place for property owners," Sullivan said. "The assessment process is the most transparent element of anything in a property owner's life. You can complain about your electric bill or your motor vehicle fees, but you pay them. With an assessment, there is always the opportunity to appeal."
Like McComas, he questioned the impact of less revenue for counties and municipalities.
"Given this economy, when counties are already asking what is happening to the assessable base, and the question of constitutionality, I have to question this," he said.
McComas said she would like to hear more debate on the issue.
"I know people are struggling," she said. "The bottom line is that we are all in this together, homeowners and government. We all have to work at making it through this economy."