Rawlings-Blake, husband collected homestead tax breaks on two properties

Challenger Conaway currently receiving unwarranted credits

August 31, 2011|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her husband collected homestead tax credits on two separate properties before she became mayor of Baltimore, in violation of a state rule that prohibits married couples from claiming the break on more than one residence, according to property records, tax bills and state regulations.

Shortly before Rawlings-Blake was sworn in as mayor last year, her husband fixed the problem, repaying seven years' worth of the credits on the Columbia house he has owned since before they were married in 2000.

A spokesman for the mayor said Kent Blake repaid the money "voluntarily" and "without any prompting."

Clerk of Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., meanwhile, has been collecting homestead credits on two properties while his wife benefits from a third.

Conaway is challenging Rawlings-Blake in the Democratic mayoral primary next month. Contacted by a Baltimore Sun reporter, he said he was unaware that he had been receiving the tax break on a rental property he owns in Northwest Baltimore in addition to the credit for his home. He said he would pay that money back.

But when he was asked why his wife also is receiving a credit on a city property she owns, he declined to comment. Mary W. Conaway, the city's register of wills, could not be reached for comment.

The homestead tax credit is intended to promote homeownership. It works as a cap, limiting the rate at which a homeowner's property taxes may rise in a single year.

The state allows individuals and married couples to claim the break only on their primary residence. Married couples are not permitted to collect the credit on more than one property, unless they are legally separated.

"As a husband and wife, you're treated as one entity," said Robert E. Young, director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. "You can pick which property is your principal residence, but you only receive it on the one."

The Baltimore Sun inspected land records in Baltimore and every Maryland county for Rawlings-Blake and her major challengers — Conaway, former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former city planning director Otis Rolley — as well as the candidates' spouses. The Sun did not find other examples of couples claiming multiple homestead credits.

Kent Blake received homestead tax credits on his Columbia property for seven years, from 2003 through 2009, according to Howard County Finance Department records. The breaks totaled $4,437.

For five of those years, Rawlings-Blake received homestead tax credits on her Baltimore condominium, totaling $3,009, city and state records show.

Kent Blake contacted the state assessments department around December 2009, according to Henry J. Sikorski, the state assessments supervisor.

At the time, then-Mayor Sheila Dixon had been convicted of embezzling gift cards intended for charity, and Rawlings-Blake, then the City Council president, stood in line to succeed her.

According to Sikorski, Blake asked to have the credits removed from his Columbia house retroactively and billed to him. He repaid the money to Howard County in three installments from January to May 2010.

Rawlings-Blake was sworn in as mayor in February of that year after Dixon resigned as part of a plea deal.

Rawlings-Blake declined to be interviewed for this article. Kent Blake could not be reached for comment.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the mayor wrote that Blake purchased the Columbia property before marrying Rawlings-Blake and "in late 2009 without any prompting, looked into the tax issue and voluntarily paid the money owed in early 2010."

"Stephanie never lived in Kent's Columbia property [and] was not aware of any tax issues related to Kent's property because she was never an owner of the property and was not married to Kent at the time of its purchase," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty wrote. "Stephanie never signed any document claiming Kent's property as a residence and under Maryland law is not liable for any taxes on the property, which have been paid."

O'Doherty did not respond to questions about when Rawlings-Blake became aware that the couple was receiving the tax break on two properties.

The homestead tax credit program has been plagued for years by the problem of property owners collecting tax breaks, sometimes unwittingly, for which they were not eligible. The Baltimore Sun reported last week that owners of 465 vacant homes in Baltimore received undeserved credits totaling $325,000 in the current tax year.

The city finance department under Rawlings-Blake has launched a "billing integrity program" to systematically analyze records that could help the city catch ineligible tax-credit recipients.

State assessors have received tips over the years about thousands of city property owners claiming credits on rentals and vacant homes, two categories that aren't eligible.

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