Loss of tax breaks means hefty bills for homeowners

Eugene Schoene maxed out a credit card, drained his checking account and borrowed money from a relative. It was the only way, he says, to pay an unexpected property tax bill of gigantic proportions.

His tab from the city Bureau of Treasury Management's Collections Division: $21,939.

Schoene is part of a group of Baltimore homeowners who have recently gotten hefty property tax bills going back four years after revelations that they were improperly collecting "homestead" credits — a widespread problem highlighted in an investigation published Sunday by The Baltimore Sun.

A 65-year-old schoolteacher, Schoene says he didn't know he was getting undeserved breaks on three rental homes in Northeast Baltimore. He blames the city for not making that clear on his tax bills, and for failing to warn him before he amassed a mountain of liability.

"There's always a penalty if it falls on you, but there's never a penalty if they screw up," he said Tuesday, referring to city officials.

But Schoene won't find a shoulder to cry on at City Hall. "We're not getting into the 15,000 excuses a person might have," said Henry Raymond, deputy finance director. "If you're not entitled to it, we're seeking recovery. End of discussion."

The Homestead Property Tax Credit effectively caps annual property tax increases in Baltimore at 4 percent. The maximum statewide is 10 percent.

The Sun's investigation found that the program has grown into a massive subsidy, fueling vast disparities among homeowners across the city, and that errors in billing and inadequate oversight have exacerbated the problem. More than 13,000 city homeowners pay less than half their tax bills thanks to the cumulative effects of the credit, while 25,000 — many of them relative newcomers to the city — get no benefit.

For years, the credit was granted automatically to homeowners who said in land records that they would occupy the property. Now, new purchasers must apply for the credit, and longer-term homeowners have until the end of next year to follow suit.

Under state law, individuals and married couples are only entitled to one homestead credit, on their primary residence. Second homes and rental properties are ineligible.

Owners who have already lost invalid credits must pay their back taxes soon to avoid incurring additional interest and penalties, Raymond said. Come May, properties with unpaid balances will go to tax sale, a process that can eventually cost an owner his or her home.

Kurtis Specht says he quickly made arrangements to pay more than $16,000 after losing homestead credits on three rental homes he owns in Canton, not that he had bags of cash lying around.

"Now I owe somebody else," Specht said last week.

One of Specht's complaints is that tax bills don't specify that an owner receives a homestead credit. Rather, the words "assessment credit" appear on the bills.

Raymond said the city would be open to modifying the wording of tax bills for greater clarity. "That's something we can take a look at," he said. The bills do show, however, whether a home is declared a principal residence.

Specht and Schoene were among 17 homeowners identified by The Sun as getting homestead credits on three or more homes in Baltimore. State officials have already removed the extra credits, and the city has revised the tax bills.

Schoene says he knew he was getting a discount on his taxes for three rental houses that he owns with his wife, Barbara. But he says he was unaware the breaks were contingent on the homes being his primary residence.

"I just assumed they gave everybody a tax credit," said Schoene, a technology teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

Schoene said city officials recently told him he could set up a payment plan through April. But then he learned he'd have to pay penalties and interest on already accrued penalties and interest. Debt-averse by nature, he said he couldn't accept that and so cobbled together the money.

He says he'll repay the family loan next month by cashing in a retirement annuity.

The Sun also identified 450 owners who are receiving two credits. The state Department of Assessments and Taxation says it's in the process of sending verification letters to those owners. They'll have 30 days to offer a valid explanation before any credits are removed — a step that would, in turn, lead to higher tax bills.

One city resident on the hook is Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., who now owes $3,640 going back to 2007 for a house he owns in the 3900 block of Bareva Road, according to city records. For years Conaway got a homestead break on the home, even though he lives on Liberty Heights Avenue.

Conaway did not return calls Tuesday. But when contacted by a Sun reporter in August, after it emerged that he had two homestead credits, he said he had no idea he was receiving breaks on both his home and the Bareva property, which he rents out.

A mayoral candidate at the time, he said he immediately began trying to pay but received conflicting advice from city tax collectors and the state assessments agency, which administers the credit. "I tried to pay it today, but they wouldn't let me," Conaway said Aug. 23. "Nobody wanted to take the money."

Raymond, the finance official, said Tuesday that the city does want to take Conaway's money. And as of Jan. 1, he'll owe even more, because interest and penalties are assessed monthly.

Raymond says he's not interested in owners' particular circumstances. A misapplied homestead credit is the homeowner's problem, not the city's, he said. And if they owe taxes, they have to pay. The back story doesn't matter, he said.

"It's just like if your kid is in third grade. Your kid stayed up until midnight and did his homework. The other kid said the dog ate his homework. Does that kid get a pass when everybody knew homework was due the next day?

"In this case, whether they knew or not, there are sanctions."

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