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At the Baltimore city-county border, sometimes homes get lost

The State Department of Assessments and Taxation estimates that there are more than 400 properties that straddle the city line, incurring property taxes in two jurisdictions and receiving what residents describe as sometimes haphazard delivery of public services.

Since Adriene Boone bought her home in West Hills nearly five years ago, she has adapted to the quirks that accompany a house bisected by the city-county line.

She knows where to stand when making emergency calls and on which side of the house to leave her trash.

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But those idiosyncrasies stopped being funny this winter, when the 31-year-old learned that she'd been receiving inflated property tax bills from the city for several years, due to a coding error in the tax office that failed to recognize the special status of her house.

"I was so angry," Boone said. "Now I've scrutinized everything."

Boone's situation is rare — but not as rare as some assume. The State Department of Assessments and Taxation estimates that there are more than 400 properties that straddle the city line, incurring property taxes in two jurisdictions and receiving what residents describe as sometimes haphazard delivery of public services.

In Boone's part of West Hills, tucked south of Interstate 70, the traces of the city-county border are subtle: a county police car often stationed at a particular corner; an abrupt end to a flank of green trashcans; paving that stops partway down an alley.

"You can just turn a block and be in the county and turn another block and be in the city," said Barry Pulliam, 56, who has lived nearby at the corner of Cook's Lane for about three years and said he intervened with a county truck this winter to make sure his street got plowed. "It's a mess really."

Some border properties are holdovers from before 1918, when the state authorized Baltimore City's annexation of more than 50 square miles to add population and tax base, bringing under its control densely populated areas such as Highlandtown and Canton, as well as big industrial properties along the waterfront.

At the time, newspaper accounts suggest opponents worried about the effect on taxes and distribution of political power, but few focused how the new line's path might impact properties.

After annexation was approved, officials extended the boundary a few miles from the existing city, drawing straight lines on a map, which meant the route does not consistently follow roads or other natural borders, like rivers. Today, with urban-rural divisions largely dissolved and new buildings erected regardless of the barrier, that decision sometimes makes for confusion.

For people who can claim residency in both places, emergency services typically respond based on who receives the 911 call, said Baltimore County spokeswoman Fronda Cohen and Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Samuel Johnson.

The city and county have worked out some of the more thorny issues, such as trash pickup on one-way streets, based on the jurisdiction for which it's more convenient.

Jeff Raymond, spokesman for Baltimore City's Department of Public Works, said the city works to serve all city residents, despite some trickiness at the border.

"The line is the line and we have to work with the boundaries," he said.

Residents say things still fall through the cracks.

Alvin Jackson, 69, lives a few houses down from Boone on Wedgewood Road, in a house inside the county. When he suffered a stroke about 17 years ago, the first ambulance that responded came from the city — but the crew called a county team to transport him once they realized his true residency, he said. (Such hand-offs are not city policy, Johnson said.)

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"They said, "Hold it. We can't do this," he recalled. "Especially when you want to get to the hospital, you say, 'what the heck is going on?'"

In other cases, fuzziness can work to residents' benefit.

Owners of properties in more than one jurisdiction, for example, have more options when it comes to public schools, since Baltimore County will offer a place to anyone who pays property taxes, regardless of the amount. (A Baltimore City Public Schools spokeswoman said its rules require the majority of a home to be in the city for students to be eligible to enroll.)

For Louis and Marjorie Weeks, who live in Mount Washington in a home bisected by the boundary, the benefit comes in the form of trash and recycling pickup four times a week.

"We are spoiled," said Louis Weeks, 63, who asked The Sun to keep the family's address private, for fear the perk might stop.

When it comes to taxes, state assessors based in the city and county offices each evaluate the part of the property that lies inside their territory, issuing bills on a percentage basis that is outlined in property deeds.

Because the offices typically use different sets of sales to compare the homes, they often reach different conclusions about the value of the same property, said Weeks, who is retired from the commercial real estate finance business and has made frequent appeals over the years.

"The process is ridiculous," he said.

Boone's problem was that Baltimore City was basing its bill on the full value of the home, instead of the correct 50 percent, she said. (She discovered the error in January when she visited the tax office in some unexpected spare time after being turned away from jury duty in Baltimore City. She was turned away because her address was classified as located in the county, though she votes in the city.)

Tax officials already have granted her a $900 refund for this year, but she's still waiting to recoup the overpayments from the three years prior, which she said she expects to total about $2,000, not including interest.

"It's a lot of money," said Boone, adding that since she receives so many of her services from the county, she's thought about petitioning to be a full-fledged county resident.

"If the city isn't going to provide any services then why should they receive any of the tax money, even though the property does fall in the jurisdiction?" she asked.

Realizing what would amount to an informal annexation would be difficult, said Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson. But Nilson and Charles T. Cluster, state supervisor of real property assessments, said they were aware of Boone's case and working to resolve the problem.

"We're trying to straighten it out," said Nilson, who said the issue pops up "more than once" a year, understandable given the nuances involved with these types of properties. "They are able to deal with it, although this one demonstrates, I guess, that it's not always super easy."

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