Herman Markovitz and his neighbors in Kensington's Newport Hills would have been less angry about the rate $45,000 homes but for the rumors that assessments were rising at a far smaller rate on Montgomery Country houses valued at more than $150,000.
Fox six months, they prepared their tax protest, poring over records in the tax assessor's office and comparing assessments for home valued at more less and the same amount as theirs.
The results confirmed their suspicions. While their assessments rose 20 percent between 1974 and 1975, homes three times costiler and Chevy Chase had increases of only 9 percent. And they developed similar evidence for other custom-built, expensive communities, such as Rollingwood, Battery Park Hills and Ptomac Manor.
"Why should ours go up 20 percent and theirs not?" asked Markotivz, who sells real estate and has more than a casual knowledge of the system. "There is no question that the value of property in Chevy Chase increases at a faster rate than the rambler homes in Newport Hills, Kensington." A recently published study based on four years of statistical analysis of county tax assessments supports their arguments. The tank Force on Real Property Assessment Practices told the Montgomery County Council that "the assessment process tends to result in a relative disadvantage for some lower-priced properties and a relative advantage for some higher-priced properties."
The task force calculated in 1977 taxpayers in houses valued up to $50,000 paid up on the average $46.80 more than they should have if assessments had been figured uniformly in all neighborhoods of the county, while taxpayers in the more expensive homes-those over $150,000-paid at least $168 too little.
"I don't like to hear that," said a taxpayer in one of the county's more expensive older neighborhood. "I realize that the lower-priced neighborhoods bear an unusual share of the tax burden, and it's too bead because they are our low- and moderate-in-come families."
The report and its descriptions of inequities within neighborhoods and from community to community around the county have unleashed a new round of complaints after the new-passage of a property tax limitation measure last month. While the previous protest by the Taxpayers League and the proponents of TRIM (The Relief in Montogmery) was lodged against rising property tax rates, this protest is directed against the apparent inequities in the state-run assessment system.
Once a private matter, the value of each ouse and its tax assessments have become common knowledge in many neighborhoods. When the assessment notices arrive, some neighbors congregate outside their homes to compare notes.
Increasingly, they also flock to the assessor's offices to read up on their neighbor's taxes, casuing the number of complaints to the county's Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board to rise each year.
"There is a house exactyly like mine down the street-but on a larger lot and with a two-car garage, which I don't have, and can you tell me why their assessment is less than mine"? Bernice Springer asked the other day, her voice tinger with bitterness.
The assessment on Springer's four bedroom two-story sColonial house in Kemp Mill Farms in Silver Spring is $37,400. The assessment of the other residence is $35,700.
"Their house looks larger. You'd buy it faster than you'd buy mine. I'm opposite a school.They're opposire apark," said Springer. "I'm going to appeal."
Springer's neighbor agreed, but she asked not to be identified. "I can't understand it. You'd think this neightborhood would be more expensive. A few of us compare our assessments every year. I'd be satisfied if they were equalized."
Although the county's supervsor of assessments declined to be interviewed , several individuals familiar with assessments practices offered explanations for the inequities.
"The majority of medium-priced homes are tract developments," said Frank Ecker, the county's public advocate for assessments, whose job is to find underassessments and try to coorect them.
"These home are considerably easier to assess reliably because they are very similar, they have freguent values and there are a lot more of them, he said. It is difficult to find comparable market data for custom-built houses because they vary so widely in design and change hands relatively infrequently, he explained.
Nor does the state assessment manual require because of lavish decorating-such as gilded wallpaper, crystal chandeliers and thousands of dollars in landscaping.
In 1974-1977, the years covered by a report, assessments in Maryland were supposed to be 50 percent of the property value. Although assessors believe a 5 percent margin of error is reasonable, the task force found that the average assessment in the county was only 40 percent of the preseumed market value.
Nevertheless, the task force said that the lowest priced homes were assessed at an avereage of 43.7 percent of their value, while the expensive ones were only 37.4 percent on the average.
The practice of using sales data from 12 to 30 months prior to the tax bill gives a further advantage to higher-prices homes that appreciate faster than cheaper ones, the task force contended.
When the Newport Hills tax protesters point out this discrepency to the county's property tax assessment appeals board, the board lowered their assessments 10 percent.
But then the Maryland Tax Court in Baltimore reinstated the assessment. "They said as long as we were assessed under 50 percent, we didn't have a case. But we feel that's wrong," said Markovitz. "If there is a standard, it should be a standard for everyone."
Undaunted, the Newport Hills tax protesters filed a new round of complaints the next year they received their assessment notices, and appealed their original case to Mountgomery Country Circuit Court, We haven't heard from them in two years," Markovitz said.