ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland homeowners who challenge their tax assessments would have to pay a $25 fee to take their cases before an appeals board under legislation proposed this week by the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Money raised by the fee would allow the state to hire more board members to help clear the backlog of cases in urban areas. But the proposed fee quickly drew criticism.

Local boards are running as much as a year behind in handling appeals. Property owners have to pay taxes on the full assessment until the appeal is completed, but get a rebate if they win.

The $25 charge would not apply to the initial appeal that property owners file with the Department of Assessments and Taxation. But the estimated 20 percent of homeowners who pursue appeals beyond that level would have to pay the fee.

Del. Tyras Athey (D-Anne Arundel) said this week he does not think the House Ways and Means Committee will agree to make Maryland residents pay for appeals when they think their assessments are too high.

"That's always been a service for constituents who wanted to appeal. I can't imagine {the committee} accepting that fee," he said.

Craig C. Biggs, administrator of the Maryland Property Tax Assessment Appeal Board, appeared before the Board of Public Works to ask for $118,000 to keep county appeals boards operating for the next four months.

After approving the appropriation, the board asked Biggs to return with suggestions for easing the backlog.

One suggestion made by Schaefer and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein was to ask board members to work two free hours a day. They are now paid $20 an hour to hear assessment appeals six hours a day. Biggs said he would make that request.

Biggs said appeals boards are running behind schedule because about 13,500 cases were appealed in 1990. The average number is about 7,500, he said.

Baltimore and Baltimore County do not expect to finish hearing 1990 cases before the end of this year, Biggs said. Other metropolitan counties are running as much as six months behind.

Biggs said he expects the 1991 workload to be as heavy as it was in 1990. The state will have to set up extra boards in some counties to keep from falling further behind, he said.

"We're going to have a financial crisis again next year," he said.

The proposal for a $25 fee drew heated criticism from leaders of tax protest groups.

"No way will it pass," said David Boyd, president of Property Taxpayers United in Baltimore County.

"We will demonstrate. We will write to all of our legislators. We will write to the governor," he said. "We'll put so much heat on Craig Biggs that Craig Biggs will wish he never dreamed this up."

Because of a lack of money, Biggs ordered a halt to assessment hearings early last month in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties. The money from the board will allow hearings to continue through the end of June.