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San Jose Mercury News

 

August 26, 2005

 

Mercury News Editorial

 

 

Restore the state subsidy for county assessor offices
IN TRYING TO SAVE MONEY, STATE CANCELS AN INVESTMENT THAT HAS GENEROUS RETURNS

 

 

It's hard to drum up banner-waving support for the folks who figure out how much you'll pay in property taxes. If the governor had bragged that he was kicking assessors' butts last spring instead of nurses', would he have been walloped with the same backlash? No way.

 

In fact this summer's state budget compromise did kick assessors' butts -- and believe it or not, residents will feel the pain.

 

The budget deal left out the $60 million a year the state has been paying county assessors' offices to help keep property assessments up to date. It's a false saving. For every dollar the state has spent on extra assessors, they've been bringing in an average of $11 in additional revenue. Who can beat that return on investment? Cutting the subsidy will actually mean less money for counties, cities and especially the state, which finances schools.

 

Fewer assessors at work will create delays for individuals filing assessment appeals or for anyone who renovates or buys a property. Owners may have to wait years for updated assessments, complicating tax returns and ultimately resulting in large retroactive bills. That's how it was before the state started helping to finance county assessor offices in 1996.

 

Now there's a move to restore the $60 million this year as a loan program, so it would not throw the budget out of whack. The Legislature and the governor would be foolish not to do this. The state has the most to gain.

 

Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone says that when he took office in 1995, there was a backlog of 16,000 building permits and property transfers the office hadn't been able to follow up on because of low staffing. Some went back several years.

 

Over the past nine years, Stone says, the state has paid $36.4 million to the county to improve efficiency in assessments, and in return the county has generated $465.5 million in new revenue. About 62 percent of that, or $292 million from this county alone, has gone to the state's general fund.

 

If the state funding isn't restored, the county will lose 53 employees who work on tax revenue, 49 of them in the assessor's office, or about 17 percent of its staff.

 

State officials apparently thought if they stopped writing checks to county assessors, the counties themselves would make up the difference. But why should they? Santa Clara County gets less than 17 percent of property taxes; Orange County has been getting 8 percent. The pattern is similar across the state. Why should counties take money away from, say, health care for local children to help get the state more money?

 

Silicon Valley lawmakers, including our sole Republican, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, are among those urging restoration of the state assistance. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber's office is crafting a proposal. There's support in the Legislature, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a question mark. And lawmakers don't want to toss together a plan that ends up vetoed.

 

The governor should tell them: Bring it on. The state's general fund -- and the schools -- have the most to gain.