Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake attempted to quiet growing calls from the City Council for an independent audit of the city's troubled property tax program, saying Tuesday that her administration's reforms should be given more time to yield results.
"We're not against audits," she said at a news conference. "We just want to make sure they're done in a timely way and are not wasteful of the taxpayers' money."
The mayor's comments came a day before a council hearing on a resolution seeking an "immediate and thorough" audit of the Finance Department. The resolution was introduced after The Baltimore Sun reported on persistent tax bill errors that have caused the city to miss out on millions of dollars.
The mayor was flanked at City Hall by top finance officials who said they could not offer specifics about continuing efforts to resolve the latest billing confusion — the rebilling of hundreds of property owners who receive a tax discount for historic renovations.
Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the taxation committee, sponsored the audit resolution. He's also behind a second proposal for the Finance Department to consider privatizing tax calculations and collections to end the "chronic and costly tax errors plaguing Baltimore."
Stokes said Wednesday's hearing, scheduled for 5 p.m. at City Hall, will allow council members to quiz finance officials, as well as staff from the state assessments agency, which city officials have blamed for causing many of the errors.
His audit resolution enjoys strong support, with 12 of the 15 council members signing on as co-sponsors.
Comptroller Joan Pratt, whose office oversees city audits, noted that Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young months ago requested an audit of the city's property tax billing and collection. She said her office is still waiting for the necessary records.
Stokes supports Young's request and said the Finance Department is "stonewalling" Pratt. "I want to bring the volume up on this until we have a delivered audit," Stokes said.
Property tax errors are a long-standing problem in Baltimore. In recent years the city failed to collect more than $2 million because of errors in two tax programs, The Sun has found.
In addition, The Sun documented in September that commercial properties in the city were underbilled by more than $700,000 over several years due to wrongly calculated Enterprise Zone tax credits.
Last month city officials revised the tax bills for 200 properties with historic credits, and they've been reviewing bills for 100 more. All 300 owners unexpectedly saw their tax bills jump in July, after the city informed them that errors by the state had wrongly inflated their tax breaks in prior years.
Those bills account for nearly a quarter of the 1,300 properties with historic credits citywide.
Asked Tuesday for details, such as what effect the revisions have had, deputy finance director Henry J. Raymond said the department did not track the accounts individually. The department has also said it doesn't have a list of the properties that got new bills last month.
In resisting calls for an immediate audit, Rawlings-Blake hailed the work of the Billing Integrity Unit, a small team in the Finance Department that she created in 2011 to uncover tax errors. Montgomery County modeled its tax compliance office on the city's unit, according to Joe Beach, the county's finance director, who joined the mayor at Tuesday's news conference.
The mayor said that Baltimore's unit has uncovered thousands of billing errors and that the department is revamping the various tax break programs available to city property owners.
"Our team has audited 100 percent of the tax credits and is correcting errors as it's finding them," she said, referring to an internal review.
"An audit now, without the reforms fully in place, would not show the current re-engineering process that has proven to be the only viable mechanism to date for actually eliminating errors," she said.
Mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris said the reforms would be in place by March or April.
Pratt said "you can't self-audit yourself" and urged the mayor to embrace an independent audit, which would test a sample of the bills to see if the errors have been corrected.
"There is no need to be afraid of or fear an audit," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun