Shock of reassessment draws a mixed reaction


Donald J. Dunn received a notice recently informing him that the taxable assessment on the West Friendship home he has owned since 1965 has increased 43 percent -- and he is fighting mad.

He immediately appealed, arguing that his lot has a steep slope, reducing its value. And the dimensions of his lot, he contended, are wrong. Dunn, 75, debated with the assessor for more than 30 minutes and awaits a verdict.

"It's getting to the point that it's confiscatory," Dunn said. "If it keeps going this way, they could end up forcing me off my property -- not by gunpoint but by economic strangulation."

But many more Marylanders are like Michael G. Reimer, 70, whose Columbia home value increased by 50 percent. Reimer also suffered sticker shock when he saw his notice but seemed resigned to the spike.

"We were surprised at how much it went up, but we don't plan to appeal," he said. "I think it's the frustration of what an appeal would get you -- nothing."

In a year in which home values shot up by an average of 36 percent statewide -- with many higher -- appeals are down by a third from last year.

State assessment officials attribute the response to publicity about skyrocketing home values and caps that limit increases in property taxes a homeowner has to pay.

"No, I wasn't surprised," said C. John Sullivan, director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. The publicity "helped property owners understand the trends in the real estate market."

Preliminary tallies show that statewide, about 19,300 appeals -- about 3 percent of the reassessments -- were filed by the Friday deadline, though a few more postmarked by then may still straggle in. Last year, 30,397 appeals were filed and 24,749 in 2002, Sullivan said.

About 2,500 appeals were filed in Baltimore City and 1,637 in Baltimore County.

Statewide, assessments rose by an average of 12 percent for each of the next three years, the biggest increase in more than a dozen years.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County showed increases at levels slightly more than half the state average -- partly because the areas inspected this year included older and lower-income neighborhoods, along with some of the hottest markets.

In the suburbs, Anne Arundel led with a 16.3 percent average increase, followed by 13.1 percent in Howard, 12 percent in Carroll, and 8.5 percent in Harford.

But there has been no uprisings of tax protest groups, such as those that sparked the creation in 1990 of statewide assessment limits -- and unseated a raft of incumbent politicians along the way.

State assessment and taxation officials credit assessment limits and the fact that the new values are phased in over three years for preventing a rush of appeals. "I think people know what the market is," said James Roesner, assistant assessment supervisor in Baltimore County, where the western area was reassessed.

"It's great to know that my investment has increased," said Baltimore County Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Democrat who said his Catonsville home has doubled in value in seven years. "But at the same time, I can't sell it and go anywhere."

Still, it's tough to argue an assessment is too high when homes sell in days and the big question for buyers is, "How much over the asking price can you take?" Moxley said.

In Baltimore, where the northern third of the city was reassessed, including Roland Park and Poplar Hill, appeals also are down, said Owen C. Charles, supervisor of assessments.

"The number is about what we expected it to be," he said. "People might complain about taxes, but they are not going to complain about an increase in the value of their home."

William F. Smouse, Anne Arundel County's assessment supervisor, said that county's 2 percent assessment limit kept appeals in line.

"If they're living on their property, chances are whatever reduction they get won't change the tax picture," Smouse said.

Even if values decline slightly in three years, the size of this year's increases will guarantee that property taxes will go up under the restrictive limits for years to come.

Explaining that can be a hard sell, said Smouse and Howard Levenson, Howard County's assessment supervisor.

"Emotions kick in, and they think we're out there throwing a number on it without any data," Smouse said.

In Maryland, a system of assessment limits allows homeowners to benefit from their growing investment while being protected from ballooning taxes.

The statewide assessment limit is 10 percent a year, but some counties are lower. Baltimore City and Baltimore County have 4 percent limits; Prince George's is 2 percent; Harford and Carroll are at 10 percent.

"It will take a lot of reduction before" any money is saved, Levenson said.

That's why many folks react like Reimer, who was stoic about his home's increase in value from $200,000 to $299,000 in this latest round.

"We bought this house in 1969 for about $34,500, and now the value is almost $300,000," he said. Despite the tax limit, "it does make us wonder how long we can afford to stay here. ... We're retired. Our income doesn't go up with inflation."

Still, Reimer knows that the amenities and services he enjoys have a cost.

"I know you've got to pay for it," he said.

Harold Lloyd, a former state assessment official who for years has helped people with assessment appeals at no charge, said that appeals are never fruitless.

"If you appeal at least you have a chance to sit down with the assessor and go over it," he said. Unless you take that first step, "you don't know what has gone into your assessment." If an appeal wins a reduction, that will reduce the base value in future years.

Taxpayers like Dunn just can't fathom fatalistically accepting the mounting tax bills.

"My gut feeling is that the price of housing in Howard County is based on irrational exuberance," he said, borrowing a phrase from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Dunn holds no stock in most economists, who say home values are up to stay.

"There's a real estate bubble," he said. "And it's about to burst."

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

Appeals Filed

Assessment appeals counted as of yesterday*:

Anne Arundel County 2,570 Baltimore City 2,576 Baltimore County 1,637 Carroll County 662 Harford County 407 Howard County 1,220

*A small number of appeals submitted by the Friday deadline remained uncounted late yesterday.

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