Mayor wants to expand property-tax effort

The number of city workers charged with rooting out property tax fraud and errors would triple — from one employee to three — under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget proposal for next fiscal year.

The "billing integrity" program, launched last spring, has focused on finding homestead property tax credits that go to owners who don't live in the homes receiving the break, which violates the rules. The Finance Department wants extra staff to audit all tax credits and investigate the accuracy of property assessments.

William Voorhees, the department's director of revenue and tax analysis, said Rawlings-Blake "is dedicated to making sure that we get every dollar the city is due."

The budget request triples spending on the program to $337,000, which would more than pay for itself, Voorhees said.

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found multiple problems that reduce city tax collection, particularly in the homestead program — "double-dippers" collecting on multiple properties, breaks going to boarded-up homes and homestead credits inflated by errors.

So far, the city has requested the state revoke over $1.3 million in homestead credits from 2,157 properties — rentals and vacant homes — and almost $1 million in tax exemptions on properties that the city believes do not actually qualify for the nonprofit break.

The Finance Department expects to soon forward a list of several thousand more homestead credits to the state to revoke, potentially $2 million in breaks, Voorhees said.

Though the city is responsible for billing, the state Department of Assessments and Taxation oversees the homestead program and makes the call on revocations. The statewide credit acts as a cap on property taxes, limiting how much of the increase in assessed value that primary residences can be taxed on in a single year. In Baltimore, the cap is 4 percent.

Voorhees said the city looked for properties receiving homestead credits even though they are registered as rentals, were cited for not registering or have been slapped with a vacant-building notice. The new staffer members would allow the department to ferret out even more properties getting undeserved homestead credits.

Voorhees said the department ultimately wants to audit all tax credits and examine property assessments. Assessed values below a property's actual market worth means lost revenue for the city, he said, adding that the agency is also interested in finding assessments that are too high.

"We want these to be correct," he said.

The billing integrity program is new, but the problem of wrongly issued tax credits is not. Patterson Park resident Matt Gonter has spent several years finding — and forwarding to the state — more than 1,000 homestead credits going to rented, empty and boarded-up homes in the city.

"I'm glad they're finally taking it seriously," Gonter said of the city.

Finding unwarranted tax breaks doesn't always translate into extra revenue. More than 550 credits were revoked by the state in January after The Sun's investigation into double-dipping, but as of early March, just over half of those owners hadn't paid up. The homes appeared on the city's list of properties in danger of going to tax sale in May.

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