Time out, please, for an agonizing reappraisal at city hall: The Barry administration plans to pay a private real estate appraiser -- are you ready? -- $300,000 this year to provide expert testimony in contested property assessment cases. Now, is that the current fair market value, or should somebody take a second look at this deal? More than a few property-tax-paying homeowners have a certain personal stake in this matter and must wonder why the price tag can't be subjected to what is known in this business as a downward adjustment. If not, perhaps the appraiser in question might be subjected to an outward relocation -- and replaced by in-house talent at more modest rates. If not, at least the job should be awarded by competitive bidding. It wasn't.

D.C. Council members John Wilson and Betty Ann Kane assessed the situation accurately at a budget hearing, when they complained that the city's department of finance and revenue was spending too much for outside consultants while failing to hire enough appraisers to do an adequate initial job of assessing residential and commercial property. As a result, budget committee chairman Wilson noted, the city has to pay $300,000 "for someone to testify that what we did is appropriate."

Department Director Melvin W. Jones testified that the appraiser's services are needed because of a recent surge in court challenges to the city's commercial property assessments -- which for the 1985 tax year were increased by an average of 40 percent to 50 percent, to bring them closer to true market values. Department officials argue that they don't have nearly the staff necessary, that there are only 42 people employed for the annual assessments. One official said the city needs 250 to do an adequate job.

That sounds high. Do we hear a lower bid anywhere? Maybe twice the number on the staff now? Whatever the magic number may be, it is a simple matter of good public policy to get those assessments as right as possible the first time around -- and thus not invite so many court challenges. In the meantime, how about shopping for a more moderate appraising system?