Top property tax bills in Baltimore add up to big bucks

Author Tom Clancy heads list of homeowners; 100 E. Pratt skyscraper is top overall

January 07, 2012|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

When the city sends Tom Clancy his property tax bill, finance officials might want to tuck in a thank-you note.

The multimillionaire novelist's supersized digs at the Ritz-Carlton Residences along the Inner Harbor have by far the highest tax payment of any home in Baltimore this year — almost $350,000. That's more than all the payments from homeowners in some entire city neighborhoods.

Property taxes on the 10 homes with the biggest bills, and the 10 commercial properties at the top of the heap, come to an eye-popping $20.7 million, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. And city officials, forever trying to expand Baltimore's tax base, say they're very glad for the big payers.

"Imagine if they weren't here," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

Clancy and his wife, Alexandra, own 17,000 square feet at the Ritz-Carlton — originally six separate penthouse condos bought in 2009 and 2010. Eight typical single-family houses could squeeze into that space, which includes its own movie theater.

To put their Ritz taxes into perspective: The collective payments of everyone who owns property in Dickeyville, the village on the western edge of the city, amount to $7,400 less than the Clancys' tab.

Office towers, hotels and an upscale apartment complex round out of the rest of the properties with the highest tax bills, most in and near downtown. The top homes are largely around the Inner Harbor, and four are at the Ritz-Carlton.

Most of Baltimore's property tax revenue, of course, flows from less high-flying sources. Nearly half the tax bills on city properties are less than $1,800 a year. About two-thirds of all the taxes come from homes, with the rest from commercial property, including apartments.

The Sun analyzed all 237,000 city property tax records. Baltimore officials said they couldn't provide the level of detail required for an in-depth look at who pays what, so The Sun built its own database, copying records from a city website using an automated process called "data scraping."

What almost all the top properties have in common — besides high values — is a lack of tax breaks. None of the fancy new buildings in Harbor East, which are among the city's most valuable properties, cracked the top 10 commercial taxpayers because breaks abound in that part of the city.

The Legg Mason skyscraper, for instance, would have the biggest tax bill of any property in the city if owner H&S Properties Development Corp. paid the full tab. But the company is getting a 90 percent discount thanks to development incentives.

This year's tax bill on that building comes to $468,000, just a fraction of the $4.2 million paid by the owners of T. Rowe Price's downtown headquarters at 100 E. Pratt St. — the biggest single bill citywide.

As a whole, the city's top taxpayers aren't eager to chat about their distinction. Many, Clancy included, did not respond to messages.

Entrepreneur David Oros and wife Marla declined to be interviewed about the $93,000 bill — third-highest among city homes — on their completely rebuilt 1920s North Baltimore house, which sits on more than five acres.

Contractor James W. Ancel Sr., ranked seventh courtesy of the $45,000 tax bill on his HarborView condo, could not be reached at home or work.

One homeowner on the list said he knew his bill was big but didn't realize it was one of the biggest — and he didn't want to talk about it. Officials with a commercial property owner in the top 10 worried that anything they said could be used against them if they appealed the property assessment, something commercial owners frequently do.

Others were intrigued.

Scott E. Dorsey, a trustee for the family trust that owns the most expansive of the Pier Homes in the Inner Harbor, had a quick response when told it has the second-biggest tax bill in the city: "Really! Who's No. 1?" (Given a chance to guess, he got it on the first try.)

Many of the Pier Homes townhouses were built — as their name suggests — on piers in the Inner Harbor. Leroy Merritt, who was born in Dundalk and amassed his fortune developing commercial real estate and building a chain of athletic clubs, bought the two adjoining homes at the end of the north pier in 2007 and turned them into a single residence.

The 9,000-square-foot property has a four-car garage, six bedrooms, seven full bathrooms and three more half-baths. There are a home theater, sauna and elevator. The rooftop deck stretches 75 feet. Nearly everywhere you look, there's water — and views of other top city properties.

Merritt bought the homes in an unfinished condition for $6.1 million and spent millions more building the interior himself. It was his primary residence until his death in 2010, though he owned others, including a house on the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County.

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