But only around 60 of the hundreds of properties identified by The Sun also appear on the city's list.

Several owners said in interviews that they had no idea they were getting multiple credits. Robert E. Young, the state's director of assessments and taxation, doesn't find that convincing: "If you're saving $1,500, $2,000 a year, I find it difficult to say I wouldn't have noticed that."

The Sun's recent examination suggests that the problem can often be easily spotted.

Sorting the homestead recipient list alphabetically revealed, for instance, that Edward M. Passano, Jr., gets two credits in Baltimore, one for a home he owns with his wife in Tuscany-Canterbury and another for a house in Bellona-Gittings.

Reached by phone, Passano said he didn't know about the credit on the Bellona-Gittings home, bought in 2007 for $750,000. He said his daughter and son-in-law live there and are part-owners. But because the deed is just in Passano's name, he shouldn't get the credit, according to the state.

The credit totaled $17,480 over the past three years (as far back as online city records go), equating to a 39 percent discount on the tax bill. City finance officials say they can legally collect back taxes for seven years, plus penalties and interest, so Passano's financial exposure could be greater.

"This is an innocent thing," said Passano, a retired publishing executive. He said he hopes the city will accept less than "full fare" because he's been a lifelong city taxpayer. He's among the 450 who will be getting verification letters from the state.

Kurtis Specht had been getting homesteads on four houses, two of which he co-owns with his wife.

Specht said he knew about one credit, on his home in the 2400 block of E. Baltimore St., which the Spechts bought in 2006 for $305,000. But he said he didn't realize he was benefiting on his three rental homes on Hudson Street in Canton. Tax bills confusingly list the homestead credits as "assessment credits," he said.

Specht, who manages an equipment rental store, said he has been entitled at various times to a credit on each Hudson house. "I initially purchased them and lived in them for a couple years each before moving along," he said.

City tax records show he recently paid taxes on all three, an amount he says exceeded $16,000 and went back to the 2008-2009 tax year. The bulk of his payment, spurred by The Sun's findings, went into city coffers, with a tiny fraction covering the far lower state property tax bill.

Specht blamed government "incompetence" for his situation. Why, he asked, didn't an official use an alphabetical sorting to flag multiple recipients before the amounts grew so large? "Guess who's going to pay for it in the end?" he said. "Me — at a time when money is tight because of the economy."

The Sun calculated total homestead credits worth more than $1.2 million this year for the 450 apparent double-dippers. Assuming each was entitled to one credit , and assuming the larger credit was always the valid one, the city could be losing out on $460,000 this year.

In rare instances, some recipients could be eligible for more than one credit. For instance, unmarried co-owners of two houses can legally get credits on both, as long as they live in the separate homes. And two connected homes could be used as one residence, in which case two credits are allowed.

Yet the analysis almost certainly underestimates the extent of the problem in other ways. It would not, for example, spot two married people who have different last names and own homes in separate names. And because the analysis was based solely on city records, it could not identify cases where someone is receiving credits in both the city and elsewhere in Maryland.

Barbara and Eugene Schoene have credits on four houses: their home in Northeast Baltimore and three rentals they own on nearby Marx Avenue. Each rental had a credit of roughly $1,200 this year, representing a one-third tax discount. Since 2009, credits for the three have totaled around $12,000.

Barbara Schoene says she didn't know they were getting the credits. Even so, she and her husband, a teacher, will now pay what they owe, she said, even if it means dipping into their retirement "nest egg."

"Flat out, I never saw that figure, all these years," she said of the credits. "I feel stupid."

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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