Property assessment critics say review is needed

Harford County homeowner Roy Whiteley, a vocal critic of the state's property assessment process, has been pushing for years to get a bill passed that would put in place a task force to review the system and suggest improvements. He's hoping the seventh time is the charm.

The bill, proposed annually since 2006, is one of several this year aimed at the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. Whiteley, testifying Friday in Annapolis, used so many adjectives to describe his feelings about the current system — including "archaic," "biased," "broken" and "flawed" — that he drew chuckles from House Ways & Means Committee members.


"I think I've covered it all," said Whiteley, who spoke on behalf of Marylanders for Fair Property Taxation. "A qualified panel of interested volunteers ... could produce some viable alternatives to this failing system."

He contended that assessment appeals are "very convoluted and cumbersome," putting homeowners at a disadvantage, and that assessments themselves are subjective. He pointed to Baltimore Sun articles about mistakes artificially lowering some homeowners' tax bills, including one case in which a property was substantially underassessed after the state lost track of the fact that the owner expanded it by combining it with two neighboring rowhouses.

When a task force was proposed in previous years in the Senate, legislators agreed with the assessment agency's argument that the move was unnecessary. This time, the agency's written testimony — submitted in lieu of sending a representative because it's not a new proposal — pointed to good reviews it has received for its work.

"We've been studied before ... and we get very high marks," Robert E. Young, director of the assessments agency, said by phone after the hearing.

The Council On State Taxation, a business group, ranked Maryland tops in the nation for the way its assessment process is designed, he said. And the state Department of Legislative Services said the agency is performing within nationally acceptable ranges for assessment quality — though it also pointed to problems highlighted by The Sun and to the agency's shrinking number of assessors.

Whiteley's isn't the only voice calling for a task force. Harford County Executive David R. Craig sent a representative to testify in favor of the proposal.

"We feel the task force proposed by this bill would be worthwhile and benefit the taxpaying citizens of our county," said Benjamin Lloyd, Craig's deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental relations.

Louis Wilen, an Olney information-technology specialist, said in an interview that he's seen many examples of large Montgomery County homes listed in assessment records as much smaller than their true size — and therefore less valuable than they really are — because the state didn't know the original home had been replaced or massively renovated.

Wilen said he'd gladly serve on a task force aimed at improving the process. He wishes the state would put more of the information it uses to assess property online so citizens would have a greater opportunity to find and point out errors.

A Senate bill that would have required such a move was killed in committee last week after the assessments agency testified that it would cost $200,000 to put its detailed worksheets online for all 2.1 million properties in the state.

Current law allows owners to get a copy of the worksheet for their property if they request it. They can see worksheets on other properties only if they appeal their assessment and pay $1 apiece — and only if those properties are relevant to the appeal.

"I can imagine there would be many property owners who would not want their property worksheet put on our website for anyone to view," said Young, the assessments agency chief.

A separate bill in the House would also require that worksheets be put online. But it comes with an even higher cost estimate from Young's agency — $940,000 — because it would additionally mandate putting online all the old cards that assessors used to keep track of property information years ago. Young said the cards would all have to be digitized.

Wilen thinks $200,000 to put just the worksheets online would pay for itself many times over in additional tax revenue. Some homeowners would probably find ammunition there to have their assessments lowered, but he thinks more people would uncover underassessments that cost local governments money.


State Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican who sponsored the worksheet bill that was voted down, thinks the idea is inevitable. He considers Internet access to worksheets an example of open government.

"Society's advancing to the point where they're going to have to be more transparent and provide the information in an easier format sooner or later," said Glassman, who also sponsored the task force proposal in previous years.