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.
Conaway, for his part, notified the state assessments department last week after he was contacted by a Sun reporter about the unwarranted credit on the rental property. He has received $1,691 in breaks on the Bareva Road property during the most recent three tax years.
But he declined to answer questions about a property on Cross Country Boulevard that his wife has owned since 1995. That property has received $7,056 in homestead credits during the most recent three years.
In all, the Conaways have received $16,500 in credits on the three properties during the three years.
Young, the director of the state assessments department, said his agency would send Mary Conaway a letter giving her 30 days to explain or lose the credit.
There is no penalty for violating the rules, Young said, beyond being required to repay the underserved credits.
Seven years of back payments is the maximum a property owner may legally be required to repay, Young said. But frequently, he said, jurisdictions don't go back more than three or four years, he said. That's true in Howard County, which will collect for the current year plus the previous three at most.
State assessment records show that Kent Blake repaid seven years on his Columbia property — the full amount. He did not receive any benefit from the homestead credit before 2003, which caps property taxes only when assessments rise beyond a certain percentage.
For years, the break was granted automatically to homeowners who indicated in land records that they would occupy the property.
That system contributed to the problem of owners receiving homestead credits on multiple properties. An individual who moves to a new home while keeping his or her old home, for example, could end up collecting the break on both properties if he or she doesn't notify the state of the change.
Now, buyers must apply for the credit, and swear under the penalty of perjury that it will be their principal residence. The state uses the Social Security numbers in those applications to make sure owners aren't getting credits on any other homes.
Homeowners who purchased before 2008 have until the end of next year to apply to retain their credits. Kent Blake had not submitted that application for his Columbia home, the assessment agency's records show.
He did, however, identify the house as a principal residence in papers he signed when he refinanced his mortgage in 2003, and again in 2005, according to the loan documents.
"He signed or initialed more than one hundred papers over the years, but did not intend to indicate that the property was his principal residence," O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, wrote in the statement.
Mary Conaway had not submitted an application to retain the homestead tax credit on her Cross Country Boulevard home, according to the assessment agency's records.
The homestead credit rules have tripped up other elected officials.
After the General Assembly passed the 2007 law that required homeowners to apply for the credit, The Sun uncovered thousands of dollars of unwarranted breaks going to several Baltimore-area lawmakers. Some of the officials were collecting multiple credits in 2008; others were getting just one, but on properties that weren't their principal residences.
Last year, then-state Sen. George W. Della Jr. acknowledged that he had benefited from credits on a property in the city and another in Baltimore County. He said his wife lived in the county property and had applied for the credit on that home. Bill Ferguson, who unseated him in the Democratic primary last fall, highlighted the double-dipping during the campaign.
The homestead credit works like a cap, preventing owner-occupiers' taxable assessments from rising beyond a certain percentage each year. The statewide limit is 10 percent. Many jurisdictions have lower limits.
In Baltimore, the cap is 4 percent; in Howard County, 5 percent. The intent is to keep homeowners' property taxes from ballooning when home prices rise quickly, as they did during the housing bubble in the last decade.
Kent Blake's Columbia house is listed for sale with an asking price of $329,900, down $10,000 from when it went on the market in June. He has tried to sell it before, with no success.
State health department records indicate that an assisted-living facility called Angels Alert II was operating in the home at least as recently as 2008. State property records show that Blake's mother, Ruteena Blake, was the owner of that business until it was dissolved in April.