The Calaveras County 2019-20 Grand Jury has released a report addressing citizen complaints of a backlog of properties at the county Assessor’s Office which has caused hefty, unexpected bills sent to taxpayers and an undetermined amount of revenue loss to county funds.
The report, which can be read in full at grandjury.calaverasgov.us, details problems including understaffing, inefficient workload management, and an influx of damaged properties due to the 2015 Butte Fire as contributing factors to the backlog of over 6,800 re-appraisable events.
“The current backlog can sometimes result in the need for years of supplemental bills to be issued for residential properties. Sometimes the taxpayer receives these supplemental bills at or near the same time,” the report reads. “Significant issues can arise if the property changes hands multiple times before a reassessment is completed. Property owners may be unaware that additional tax bills will be issued.”
The report acknowledges that recommendations made by the 2016-17 Grand Jury to close an approximate three-year gap on residential property reassessments and a four-year gap on commercial property reassessments were not acted upon, specifically by the county’s Administrative Office.
The report did not find any wrongdoing by County Assessor Leslie Davis, who has held the elected position for 12 years and has served as president of the California Assessors’ Association. Alternatively, the Grand Jury pointed to insufficient departmental budget increases of roughly $100,000 over the past 15 years resulting in a staffing deficit.
“Many citizens in Calaveras County are upset with the Calaveras County Assessor’s Office because late reassessments are creating unexpected tax bills,” the latest report reads.
One such individual is Katherine Searcy, a Bay Area resident who decided to pay her retired father-in-law’s several-thousand-dollar tax bill on his West Point property after he was slapped with the unexpected expense.
“It doesn’t seem like a very fair way to do it when they get five years to reassess, and seniors on a fixed income have to turn around and pay out of pocket,” Searcy said.
Taxpayers have the right to an informal interview with the Assessor’s Office as well as the right to appeal within 60 days of the notice in question, though Searcy says she chose not to appeal due to interest and fees charged by the Treasurer/Tax Collector’s Office if the amount goes unpaid.
During fiscal year (FY) 2019-20, there were 108 appeals filed with the Assessor’s Office.
Taxpayers also have the option of undertaking an interest-free payment plan for taxes in excess of $500, though the Grand Jury found that method often delays by years the collection of county funds.
“All taxes comprise about 25% of the total projected General Fund revenue for FY 2020-2021. This tax revenue is in part comprised of real property and personal property taxes. Understanding the value and economic loss to the county as a result of the backlog is difficult to determine. Until a reassessment occurs, the accurate assessed value cannot be taxed,” the report reads. “At the time of this writing, according to the (Assessor’s Office), if the residential reassessments were updated to within six months from the time of a title change, a one-time increase to General Fund revenues would be approximately $2 million to schools and approximately $1 million to county, city and special districts.”
To expedite this process, the Grand Jury recommends that the Assessor’s Office cease comparative market analyses and instead utilize the “Value Concept,” a less accurate but more timely method of assessing property values based on sales price.
“As an alternative ... assessors have the discretion to conduct a comparative market analysis, a more time-intensive method,” the report explains. “This comparative analysis is mainly done when the sales price does not seem to accurately reflect the true market value of the property.”
In all other counties interviewed by the Grand Jury, the Value Concept method was used and backlogs were within the range of two months to two years.
“Accuracy was considered paramount in all counties, but it was acknowledged that less than 100% accuracy was sometimes acceptable in order to keep up with the workload,” the report reads. “It was acknowledged that a lower assessment value was acceptable in order to move through reassessments in a timely manner.”
It was also recommended that the Assessor’s Office should develop a more time-effective work-flow method than its current “first in, first out” policy for reassessments.
Beyond recommending that the county Board of Supervisors “should maintain sufficient funding in the Calaveras County Assessor’s Office budget to bring all reassessments to within one year of all re-appraisable events by June 30, 2022,” the Grand Jury also called on the county’s Administrative Office to follow through with their 2017 pledge to complete a “comprehensive staffing and work methods analysis.”
As is customary, responses to the grand jury’s findings and recommendations are required from elected officials within 60 days of the report’s release, and within 90 days from governing bodies.