Sun Investigates

Baltimore won't release legal opinion on tax break errors

When Baltimore Finance Director Harry E. Black revealed Wednesday that the city could not legally recoup more than $1.5 million in erroneous tax breaks from commercial property owners, he promised to provide the legal analysis on which he based the decision.

He then blocked the release of a 12-page opinion by city lawyers laying out the rationale.


The opinion could explain why the city does not think it can rebill property owners to recover excessive tax discounts granted for historic rehabs, even as it has charged many homeowners back taxes for a different kind of discount rife with problems — the homestead tax credit.

City Solicitor George Nilson, whose lawyers drafted the opinion at the request of finance officials, said he could not provide it because of attorney-client privilege — Black's Finance Department being the client.


"Harry has at this juncture declined to waive the privilege, so I'm not able to release it to you," Nilson said. "I really can't summarize it or answer any questions for you."

Black said Wednesday that the "legal impediment" to rebilling historic credit recipients came down to this: "They paid what they were billed." The errors resulted from chronic miscalculations by the state assessments agency that city finance officials failed to catch.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, the council's only lawyer, said he understands the importance of the attorney-client privilege. But he added: "Thinking about it as an elected official and the nature of open government, I think folks should understand why government is making a decision it's making."

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the opinion should be released, with any "truly confidential" information redacted.

"You've got an awful lot of money that is being lost into the atmosphere," she said. "It's definitely to the public interest to understand the logic behind the decision…The city has made a fairly significant decision and isn't being public with its decision-making process. The public has a right to know."

Travis Tazelaar, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said officials would provide more information next week. He said Deputy Finance Director Henry Raymond, who requested the opinion from the Law Department, has been on vacation.