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Baltimore City works haltingly to explain property tax credit errors

Five Baltimore homeowners have been getting erroneous historic rehab property tax credits for the past two years. Once the errors were discovered, the city was quick to demand that all five pay the money back — and within 30 days, thanks.

But city officials took a much more leisurely pace when it came to answering basic questions about these mysterious tax-breaks-that-shouldn’t-have-been.

After the city told us it had no record of historic credit applications from any of the five, it took a good month to convey (or perhaps determine) what that meant: Those owners have been enjoying undeserved tax breaks, even if they didn’t realize it.

We had asked the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation (CHAP) for documents related to 200 city properties getting a historic rehab tax credit. The 200 were a random sample of the overall pool of 1,170 credit recipients.

A city lawyer cryptically told us “CHAP does not have records responsive to your request” for the five of the 200. We contacted CHAP director Kathleen Kotarba.  She quickly replied Feb. 22 with an intriguing response: “We have no record of a tax credit application” for the five, she wrote.

Next we turned to the Finance Department, hoping Deputy Director Henry Raymond could provide clarity.

No response. Days passed. On March 2, we asked Raymond again. He said he’d check. Nothing. More days passed.

Nearly three weeks later, I emailed him again. He said he had an answer, which he emailed a day later: “These five properties erroneously received the credit.” That was all he wrote.

Which only raised new questions. “How did they come to receive the credit erroneously?” I replied. “And what now?”

No answer. On March 29 I emailed him and mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty. No response.

Finally, I spoke to Owen Charles, No. 2 at the state assessments agency. He told me that someone at his agency had accidentally coded the five in a way that made it seem they were entitled to the tax breaks.

The city Finance Department used that (inaccurate) information to calculate tax bills. Nobody at the city had noticed since 2010 that the credits weren’t correct.

Among the unanswered questions: When will the city check to see if there are any other “erroneous” historic credits? We’ll keep asking.    

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