A TAXING EXPERIENCE State assessor knocked on 4,000 doors last year


The misty morning is spitting rain as Charlotte F. Rogers works her way along a pleasant suburban street in western Baltimore County.

Dressed in a trench coat and toting a stack of 8-by-10 white file cards, Rogers stops in front of each home, knocks, waits a moment, then leaves her business card at the door. If someone answers, she asks a few questions before handing over the business card and moving on.

Last year, Rogers knocked on more than 4,000 doors, but she's no insurance saleswoman.

She's a property assessor -- an assessorcrat, in the unflattering jargon of the region's tax protesters. Property re-assessments are being done in parts of Baltimore and in counties across the state.

lTC If you live in the western part of Baltimore County, Rogers may be loose in your neighborhood right now, discreetly eyeing your property and making careful notes.

Last year, homes in east and northeast Baltimore County were assessed. The year before, it was homes in Towson, Ruxton and the north ern part of the county. Any increase in the assessment is phased in over three years.

The typically mundane process of evaluating residential properties for how much tax they owe sparked a bonfire of protest in Baltimore County, as well as Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, last year.

Residents complained about a sharp rise in the value -- and tax burden -- the state placed on their homes and in turn, booted out some politicians.

A Baltimore County taxpayers group urged people to "jam the system" with appeals. Appeals aren't up for the county this year, but they are for the state as a whole.

Rogers, 29, an assessor for 4 1/2 years, is aware of the bashing her profession takes, but is not hurt by it.

"I haven't had it directly affect me," says Rogers, explaining that because few people have appealed the assessments she's made, she feels that she's doing a good job.

Rogers acknowledges that assessors make errors, but points out that in a mass appraisal system, mistakes happen.

"It's not a perfect system," she says. "But it's the best system we have right now. And with the volume of assessments we do each year, I think we do a pretty good job."

Last year, for example, Rogers assessed more than 4,000 properties, mostly townhouses, in the growing Perry Hall area. She expects to do nearly as many this year in the western area of the county.

On this morning in a 700-house development of single-family homes, Rogers methodically makes her way from house to house, pausing for only a few minutes at each.

If no one answers the door, she leaves her card, then walks to the back to check on accessory structures such as garages, pools, spas and decks.

At only one house does a resident, an older man, come to the door. "I'd just like to verify a few things with you," she says.

She asks if he has a finished basement, two full baths, central air-conditioning. Yes, he says to all of it.

Assessors rarely, if ever, go inside people's homes. For one thing, they wouldn't have enough time to look inside every house. And many people don't want them inside.

Fern Tayman, Rogers' supervisor, says an inside inspection would benefit a homeowner only if the property was in terrible condition inside. "Something like a hairline crack in the foundation isn't going to help them," she says.

"We only go if they ask us to, and then we don't go inside unless we have two people," Rogers says, explaining that the policy is designed to protect the homeowner and the assessor.

The appearance this particular day that her job isn't very involved is misleading. Much of her work has happened before and after she visits the development.

Rogers first obtains a list of all the homes sold in the area in 1990, categorizing them by type and sale price.

This is part of the market approach to assessing property, determining what other homes of similar construction and age are selling for, their so-called market value.

Then, assessors apply what's called the cost approach -- a replacement cost of the house, based on its features.

Back at her government-issue desk, adrift in a sea of identical work cubicles in Towson, Rogers goes over the record card for one of the homes, a split-foyer house built in 1968. Consulting the Maryland Assessment Manual, her bible of sorts, she quickly works up a new value for the home, $100,280, and double-checks her calculations.

Then it's on to the next assessment. Tomorrow she'll be back in the field, a stack of property record cards under her arm.

She enjoys the work, despite the unpopular stereotype of the taxman. Most people are nice, she said, and understand that she doesn't collect taxes or even set the tax rate.

Still, some people can't control their ire. Several times in the past, she had asked to look in someone's back yard. They agreed, but as soon as she set foot in the yard, the people let loose their dogs.

"That's the worst thing they've ever done," she says.

She is laughing, probably only because she's never been bitten.

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