Since 2009 Patrick Tong has received "homestead" property tax breaks worth $18,000 on three rowhouses he owns in East Baltimore.
He's quick to agree that he hasn't been entitled to a penny of it.
Homeowners qualify for the break only on their principal residence, and Tong doesn't live in any of the three houses, which he has used as storage "for several years." He says he didn't even realize he was enjoying the steep discounts until being informed recently by a reporter.
"I would like to correct or rescind that," Tong, an ophthalmologist in Columbia, said in an interview. "I intend to do what's right."
Tong is one of 17 owners who have been wrongly getting the Homestead Property Tax Credit on three or more properties in the city, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of public records.
The analysis also found that as many as 450 owners are improperly getting credits on two Baltimore homes, possibly costing the city $460,000 or more in uncollected revenue this year alone. Add in prior years, and such unwarranted homestead breaks have likely cost the city well above $1 million.
After The Sun asked the state assessments agency about the 17 owners, officials began moving to revoke their extra credits, which this year would've cost the city $50,000. Sixteen of the owners now have just one credit — on their true residence. The other has gone from three credits down to zero.
"Those have been rescinded," Owen C. Charles, deputy director of assessments and taxation, said last week. "They did not qualify for the credits on those properties."
The city, in turn, has revised the owners' tax bills, seeking several years' of back taxes, plus interest and penalties. And after The Sun shared its findings, the state began sending verification letters to the 450 owners with two credits. They'll all have 30 days to respond before any credits are removed.
While the state administers the credit, the city issues the actual tax bills and loses out on any uncollected local property taxes — the biggest source of money in the city's operating budget.
For its analysis The Sun sorted homestead recipients alphabetically and looked for repeat names, skipping over common names except where linked by address.
Charles says his state agency did a similar audit in February but had "not yet gotten around to notifying those owners and or rescinding the ineligible credits." He said the staff has been focused on reviewing a different list of suspected scofflaws sent in by the city.
The agency has also been processing applications under a new state law that requires homeowners to apply for the credit by the late 2012. Passed in 1977, the credit had been granted automatically if land records indicated a buyer planned to live there, a factor that made abuse easier.
The city says it recently did its own A-to-Z sort but didn't act because it was afraid of needlessly scaring people who share a name — such as a father and son — but legitimately qualify for two credits, said William Voorhees, director of revenue and tax analysis at the Finance Department.
The Sun's findings offer the latest sign of widespread homestead credit "double-dipping," which deprives the city of money at a time when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has had to make painful cuts to close large budget deficits. The city is facing a $52 million shortfall next year.
Problems with the homestead credit go beyond double-dipping. In August, The Sun reported that 465 unoccupied properties in Baltimore were getting the tax breaks, even though the city had issued violation notices tagging them as vacant and unlivable or unsafe.
The homestead credit effectively caps annual property tax increases at 4 percent for primary residences in Baltimore. The statewide cap is 10 percent, though many counties have lower limits. The credit became highly valuable to homeowners during last decade's real estate boom, and many still see major benefits even with the recent drop in home values.
City officials say they have stepped up scrutiny of the homestead program, which this year will cost the city $120 million in forgone taxes.
As part of a new "billing integrity program," finance officials asked the state in October to take away more than $1.3 million in credits granted to 2,157 homes. For its check, the city compared homestead recipients to a list of properties registered as non-owner-occupied homes or cited for failing to register.
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."