SANTA ANA — In a series of private meetings over the last two weeks, Orange County cable TV operators tried to enlist members of the Board of Supervisors in an arm-twisting campaign against county Tax Assessor Bradley Jacobs, officials said Wednesday.
Incensed by recent tax increases of as much as 400%, industry representatives told supervisors they plan to sue Jacobs and urged them to question him closely about entering a legal battle that could be protracted and costly to taxpayers.
Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said the cable representatives who came to his office Tuesday urged him to pressure Jacobs to reconsider his method of assessment.
"I told them he was an elected official, and I couldn't do anything about it," Riley said, noting that Jacobs is a constitutional officer operating independently of the supervisors, although the board must approve his budget.
"I guess I was a little annoyed," Riley recalled. "They know as well as I know the Board of Supervisors does not have power over the assessor in these matters."
Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant who is handling the cable operators' continuing public relations campaign against the tax hike, denied that anyone suggested pressuring Jacobs but acknowledged that the operators would like supervisors to question him.
Englander said cable representatives met with four of the five supervisors individually to inform them of the impending suit as a courtesy and to point out that companies have won several such suits elsewhere in California.
"This litigation will provide the supervisors an opportunity to question the assessor and see if what he is doing is acceptable," Englander said. "It was not a threat."
"The suggestion was made that the litigation gives the Board of Supervisors the opportunity to discuss with Brad Jacobs in executive session (closed to the public) whether or not Brad Jacobs' case is a viable case and whether there should be a settlement," Englander said.
"We just want the Board of Supervisors to sit down with Jacobs to determine whether they think it's going to be worth the millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to fight this if there's no merit in it."
The cable companies have already appealed their property tax assessments, which soared this year because of a new method used to assess the value of their business properties. Under the new assessment method, the companies are taxed not just on property and physical plant but on such intangibles as corporate goodwill, which includes the value of the firm's reputation and its customer base.
The cases are now before the assessment appeals board. A lawsuit would be filed in civil court.
The industry has also begun a major public relations campaign, placing full-page newspaper ads and mailing notices to subscribers. The campaign urges county residents to complain to the supervisors about the hike in the cable taxes, which the companies say they have already begun passing on to customers in the form of higher rates.
Jacobs has declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. But Deputy Assessor Ronald Cooper expressed outrage Wednesday at the cable operators' tactics. "They (cable representatives) requested that they (supervisors) put pressure on this office to make some changes," Cooper said.
The suggestion that cable assessments are unfair is "just, flat-out, a lie," Cooper said. He said his office has received 70 to 80 telephone calls and about 50 letters from residents, who have overwhelmingly been "very anti-cable." He said most residents complain not about the tax, but about the operators' practice of passing it on to customers.
Englander said the companies are fighting not only for the cable operators but for every business in Orange County that might also face unreasonable new tax assessments.
Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, the only board member who has not yet met with the cable representatives, said he had been approached about a meeting and planned to see them later this week.