Homeowner works out deal with city after tax billing error

Like a car salesman, the City of Baltimore started high, came down and ended up making a deal all sides could live with.

The city has agreed to give Patterson Park homeowner Maureen Coyle about two years to repay $5,702 worth of property tax breaks that she didn't ask for and that she thought reflected a legitimate discount for being an owner-occupant, Coyle says.

On Friday the city's law department emailed her a contract spelling out terms of the deal that will require her to repay $250 a month. "I felt comfortable with the agreement we came to," said Coyle, a social worker.

Coyle is one of five city homeowners who, for the past two years, received erroneous historic rehab tax credits they did not request. The mistakes apparently began with a coding miscue by the state Department of Assessments and Taxation and weren't caught by the city. The errors came to light only after The Baltimore Sun asked for documents regarding a random sample of credits that happened to include the five.

Initially, the city demanded that all five owners repay their unwarranted breaks within 30 days -- by April 30 -- or else they'd incur steep penalties and interest. Amid sharp criticism from City Council members, who called that unfair, the city then gave the owners another option: the chance to arrive at a "mutually-agreeable" payment plan, without penalty.

It wasn't clear Saturday if arrangements have been made with the other four owners, whose undeserved credits ranged from $1,700 to $9,200.

Coyle said the city's opening repayment offer to her was not much better than immediate repayment. The city offered her nine monthly installments of $633 each. She balked, saying she couldn't afford that. A city official then asked her what she was looking to pay.

Coyle suggested $250 a month. That was an amount she could swing. She also thought it was reasonable to spread the payments over two years, since that's how long she'd gotten the credit. The law department employee she spoke to checked with a supervisor, who signed off.

For Coyle, the experience offers a couple lessons. One, it turns out you can fight City Hall, at least sometimes. And two, make sure you understand your tax bill (which the city is partially redesigning to improve clarity). "From here on out," she says, "I will definitely be paying much closer attention" to the tax bills.

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