Property assessors in Montgomery County now enjoy too wide a range of judgment and deviate too much from the goal of uniform and accurate assessment, a citizen task force, established by the county council last spring in response to citizen protests over property assessment increases, last week tentatively concluded that the state assessor's office needs more standard procedures and a computerized system similar to that established in Fairfax county.
The Fairfax system, developed at a cost of $475,000, employs three computer models under which updated assessments for most residential properties are estimated. On the basis of information on sales, market trends and the physical characteristics of the property, the computer makes three estimates of the assessment. The assessor, using his knowledge of the neighborhood, certain home models and other conditions, then makes his assessment.
The task force members who have visited Fairfax to see the system say it has produced more accurate results than Montgomery's current methods. And they noted that Fairfax has about the same number of properties as Montgomery, but it has fewer assessors and only one-sixth as many assessment appeals.
The task force's primary charge was to investigate the assessment accuracy and uniformity among different classes of property, and different properties within a single class. Also, it was to look at procedures for reassessment, appeals, and the general matter of the extent to which the property tax should be used to obtain local government revenue.
The group split on many questions but generally came out for change. Chariman Scott Fosler took care after last week's meeting to soften criticism of the assessor's office by noting. "You can recommend changes even for somebody who is doing a good job."
Final findings on the accuracy and uniformity of assessments will await a computer analysis now being done by the county's management information service. But even without the final figures, many task force members called for major improvement.
'The assessors in this county are very good men working very hard and overall doing a very good job," said Harry Davis. "However, I think they are very free-flowing. I don't see any built-in system where they watch their men, where they guide them. There is no check on the man's judgment."
A few members defended the assessors. "They do use judgment . . . They should,"argued Wayne Finegar. "The tone of the (draft) report is that this judgment is highly unstructurd, undisciplined, capricious and arbitrary . . . If other people get this feeling, I'm afraid they're wrong."
But other members, such as Herman Markovitz, defended the criticism in the draft report: 'To some extent it's true - they do use judgment arbitrarily." Markovitz cited the task force's finding that assessors often develop a cost per cubic foot figure after they have already decided on an overall assessment for a pieced of property.
And Kenneth Cohen, chairman of the committee on assessment accuracy said he has sales-assessment ratio figures for one area of Bethesda which are higher than those publicized by the assessor. He said the discrepancy amounted to "almost double booking."
Fosler called more standarized procedures and guidelines a way of satisfying citizens about their assessments as well as insuring assessment accuracy.
"If you can understand the data and the assumptions on which thosejudgments are made, you are likely to get better judgments in the first place and you are less likely to get protests after citizens see what has been done," he said.
One significant area where the task fore apparently will not recommend changes or find fault with the assessor's office concerns the extent to which the different categories of property - residential, apartment and commercial - are fairly assessed.
In July, member Leonard Rodwin had reported that the assessor's methods of determining commercial property values was inaccurate and could lead to under-assessments. His report tended to back up charges made by other citizens that commercial property is valued too low in relation to residential property.
But last week member Paul McGuckian said that other reports the task force has received have not indicated inequities in assessment methods among the classes of property, "and some mention should be made of the fact that we don't have the information and can't evaluate it."
After last week's meeting, Fosler said reports indicate that residential property has appreciated faster than other kinds of property, and that commercial assessments, even if undervalued, maintain approximately the same sales to assessment ratios as residential property. The computer analysis to be done by the county later this month will give the task force better figures relating to sales-assessment rations for different classes of property.
The task force will submit its final report to the county council in late October at the earliest. The report will cover matters from assessment accuracy to the appeals process, and will likely contain many recommendations for changesin state law.