Marylanders face long wait in assessment appeals

Jack Becker sought to appeal his property tax assessment at the end of February and finally had the hearing in November. He is awaiting the results.
Jack Becker sought to appeal his property tax assessment at the end of February and finally had the hearing in November. He is awaiting the results. (Baltimore Sun)

The assessed value of Jack Becker's three-bedroom split-level home in Reisterstown dropped nearly $90,000 in the past five years. But in a bad economy, Becker still thought his assessment — and property taxes — were too high.

He filed an appeal to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. It was denied. Then, Becker waited more than nine months for a hearing with a local appeals board, finally getting one in November. He still hadn't gotten the results of the hearing when he paid his tax bill in December.

"I'm no expert in this," said Becker, 76. "But there's a problem."

The turbulent real estate market has helped drive a huge backlog of cases before the local boards that hear property tax assessment appeals. Though officials say they are hearing more cases than ever, the waits can stretch for months and months for some homeowners.

Maryland's 24 property tax assessment appeals boards expect to carry a backlog of nearly 8,000 commercial and residential cases into 2012. That's up from about 4,000 in 2007.

When the market crashed in 2008, home values went down more rapidly than the owners' taxes did, leading to a spike in the number of appeals. This year, there were also some delays due to the retirement of assessors at the state Department of Assessments and Taxation — 10 percent of the total — and due to training on a new computer system at the agency, officials said.

In 2006, the local boards received about 8,800 appeals. That number more than doubled in 2009, to roughly 19,500.

This year, the boards got about 13,000 cases.

"It all depends on the economy," said Kent Finkelsen, administrator of the appeals boards. "When the economy is good and the housing market is good, people aren't as worried about their assessments. … When the economy is bad and the housing market is in decline, people are more worried about the real estate taxes that they pay."

The local boards hear "second-level" appeals — those that already have gone through appeals at the state agency. It should take about four months for a case to be heard at the local level, Finkelsen said.

But the time it takes to hear an appeal varies widely throughout the state. Some people get a hearing within a month, Finkelsen said. Others wait for 10 months.

"Would we like to do it quicker? Yes," Finkelsen said. "Can we do it quicker? No. You need funding and positions to do that."

In the larger counties, the wait is, on average, about six months, Finkelsen said.

The wait depends on factors such as how often a board meets and the number of appeals filed in each county, he said. By law, each board member can work up to 30 hours a week.

In Baltimore County, for instance, all board members have full-time jobs, which limits the time they have to hold hearings, Finkelsen said. In some counties, all board members are retired, so they have more flexibility to schedule hearings.

Some counties have no pending cases, while one — Prince George's — had more than 3,000 pending cases as of November.

The boards made a dent in their backlogs last year, reducing the number of statewide total pending cases from about 10,000 to 7,000.

But the backlog has endured for years. A 2007 legislative audit noted that the local boards were facing a "significant backlog" of about 4,000 cases. At the time, vacant positions on the local boards were a big part of the problem, said Finkelsen, who has headed the boards since 2006.

Since then, most of the positions have been filled. But other problems remain.

Officials had projected the number of appeals to decrease even more over the past year, because the real estate market is stabilizing, Finkelsen said.

But many people, like Becker, are appealing even if their assessments have dropped significantly, said Robert Young, director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.

In Prince George's County, for instance, residential properties had an average assessment reduction of 35 percent in 2011, compared with three years earlier, he said. But some people still feel that's not enough in a bad economy.

The state also had fewer assessors because of the large number of retirements in Young's department.

According to Young, about 9 percent of the assessors have retired annually, on average, for the past three years. There are 158 field assessors for the entire state.

The department recently hired 16 assessors and plans to hire a few more, Young said.

When assessors aren't available, it can create delays because they must attend the hearings, Finkelsen said.

Though postponements were once rare, he said they are now done regularly. "They don't have the staff to hold the hearings," he said.

The state tax department also experienced delays due to a $9.8 million computer system that was installed at the beginning of the year. Each staffer had to train for about three weeks on the new system, Young said, which limited the availability of assessors to attend hearings.

Finkelsen had hoped to cut the backlog by several thousand cases this year.

"We've done everything we could," he said, pointing out that boards have been hearing more cases than ever.

The boards heard about 7,200 cases in 2007, but this year had heard about 11,000 as of November.

State lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that Finkelsen had hoped would help further trim the backlog. The measure added two alternate members to the appeals boards in the five largest localities: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and Baltimore City. The idea was to give the boards more flexibility in scheduling hearings.

So far, though, none of the counties has submitted names for appointments, Finkelsen said.