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Montgomery Shelves Assessment Appeals

Duncan Reverses Past Approach

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page B07

Montgomery County officials are having second thoughts about appealing the 2005 assessments of more than 175 residential properties they regard as undervalued by the state.

Although assessments this year grew by an average of 69 percent, officials identified 178 residential and 40 commercial properties for which they believe the increase was too low. Last month, they formally appealed to the state.

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Montgomery is the only county in Maryland that appeals assessments it considers too low, officials said. In the 1970s, the county created the Office of the Public Advocate to track assessments and ensure the county is getting the proper amount in local property taxes.

Once every three years, the state reassesses properties and estimates their value for the purpose of charging state and local property taxes. The public advocate then examines the assessments and compares them to recent sale prices.

If a sale price far exceeds the reassessed value, Montgomery files an appeal with the Maryland Property Tax Assessment Appeal Board.

This year, for example, the county appealed a property that was assessed at $590,000 but recently sold for $800,000. Several other properties assessed near $1 million but recently sold for as much as three times that amount also were appealed.

However, after being contacted by a Washington Post reporter for comment on the appeals, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan instructed county Finance Director Timothy Firestine yesterday to put the appeals on hold.

Duncan, who is considering a bid for governor next year, declined to comment. But Firestine said the executive "is concerned about how it appears relative to the dramatic increase in assessments." He said Duncan also wants to see whether the General Assembly addresses the issue of assessments that differ from sale prices.

Firestine said the county wants to make sure all residents of a neighborhood are being treated equally. "If I am paying taxes based on the market, it is not fair to me to be having someone else paying taxes that are not based on the market," he said.

Duncan's approach appears to be a reversal from past attempts to ensure that the county receive its fair share of property tax revenue.

In 2002, the General Assembly passed a law that limited counties' assessment appeals to immediately after the revaluations. Duncan opposed the legislation, saying at the time that the appeals were a way to have property owners "pay their fare share" and that the legislation amounted to a "tax break for the wealthiest taxpayers in Montgomery County."

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