Howard Levenson is retiring as Howard County's supervisor… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
Howard Levenson's name is not a household word in Howard County, but there are thousands of county homeowners who probably wanted to make his acquaintance over the years.
As Maryland's assessment supervisor for the county since 1991, and a state assessment official since 1974, he's the man in charge of those state notices that arrive just before New Year's Day and can make people's faces turn red. He has presided over a huge two-decade roller coaster of real estate values that has more than doubled home prices in Maryland's most prosperous county. He explained it simply in a 2002 interview:
"'Location, location, location' is all that real estate agents say, and we have all three."
At age 63, the pleasant man with the lively sense of humor and a toothy smile is about to retire, and he and his wife are planning to spend the winter in Florida, far away from angry taxpayers who want to know why, when their property values are going down, their tax bills are still going up.
"Thirty-six years is a long time," Levenson said recently, sitting behind a cluttered desk in his corner office above the District Court in Ellicott City, right across the hall from the parole and probation and the public defender's offices. He's mindful, he said, that his predecessor died one month after he retired.
"The idea is to retire when you're still healthy enough and not to be too bored," he said.
Although Levenson's job can and does provoke outrage, he has generated little of that emotion among those who know him. Even property tax critics like Baltimore County's Harold Lloyd, who knew Levenson as a co-worker in the 1970s, and Pat Dornan, a Howard resident who once tried to lead a tax revolt, have nothing bad to say.
"I've always like Howard. He's a very fine gentleman," said Lloyd, 84, who has devoted the past three decades to helping fight what he feels are unfair and sometimes arbitrary assessment practices and laws. The key, he said, is that "Howard never had that defensive attitude" when criticized. "He was always open-minded."
Dornan said his own home has never been assessed at more than it is worth, so he has no beef with Levenson, but he does have some retirement advice.
"I'd move to South Carolina or Florida, where it's cheaper to live," he said.
There's a natural tension between state assessors and county fiscal officials, since assessors merely set the worth of a house, while local elected officials set tax rates that determine how big the bill is. Often county officials leave the property tax rate unchanged as home values increase, giving the county more revenue while they tell voters they haven't raised taxes.
"Over the years, we've always taken all the heat," Levenson said. "As soon as we raise their assessment, they say we're raising their taxes."
Despite that, Levenson and Howard budget director Raymond S. Wacks get along well.
"What has impressed me the most about him is his laser-like focus on fairness for both the property owner and the county," Wacks said. "He was always reminding us he did not set the tax rate, just the value, but he always did it with a smile."
Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, a fan of tax cuts, said she values Levenson as a reliable source of information. "I always can trust what he tells me," she said, a sentiment shared by Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass.
She said Levenson's help boosted her bill to allow civilian government employees to retain their status under the state's Homestead Tax Credit program if they must move temporarily for work; uniformed military members get the same treatment. "I'll miss him," she said.
Levenson's boss, C. John Sullivan, director of the Department of Assessments and Taxation and a 46-year veteran of state service, said the same thing: "He's a great friend who always kept his perspective of what our role was." Sullivan has sent County Executive Ken Ulman a letter asking for the names of five potential replacements. In the meantime, Assistant Supervisor Renee Mierczak will run the 14-person office.
All agree everything about the job is more complicated now than when the Northwest Baltimore native first started, commuting to what he considered a remote Upper Marlboro, in Prince George's County, for a salary of $11,500 a year. "When I started, we used a rock and an abacus," Levenson said jokingly. In fact, all the records were kept on cards filled in by hand. Now, the assessment staff is half the size it once was, and computers are indispensible.
Levenson moved to the Howard County office in 1980 and relocated to Columbia. Levenson was chosen from among five finalists for the $45,000-a-year supervisor's job in 1991. He now makes about $85,000, he said, counting unpaid furlough days.