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Residents Rush to File Appeals of Assessments


SANTA ANA — Anyone venturing near the crowded first-floor waiting room of the Orange County assessor's office on Wednesday might have thought it was the height of the tax season and H&R Block was running a free seminar.

Wednesday was the deadline for county residents to file appeals on their most recent property value assessments, and hundreds were using the waning hours to try to cut their property tax bills.

So heavy is the volume of appeals that officials opened a temporary workroom furnished with classroom desks to handle new arrivals.

"They've been coming in here pretty steadily," appraiser Carrie Dickerson said during a break in the office traffic. "They want to know how long it is going to take to get an answer on their cases, but we can't tell them."

It can take as long as two years for the county to process each case.

Since residents were allowed to postmark their challenges by Wednesday's deadline, officials said the total of new appeals was not immediately known, although estimates have run as high as 35,000--about 10,000 more than last year.

The new filings will be added to a 17,000-case backlog, creating one of the worst administrative logjams in the state. For at least the last three years, residents have sought to challenge the county assessments as Southern California real estate prices continued to plummet.

Officials in the assessor's office have admitted that the sheer number of appeals has overwhelmed office resources. They say they don't even track the success rate for appeals. As a result, people filing appeals have no clue about the odds they face.

The public's frustration with the lengthy disputes is shown in interviews of residents with appeals pending and official reports showing the slow progress of paperwork through the clogged system.

By comparison, Los Angeles County processes a tax roll three times the size of Orange County's--but in the same amount of time.

County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider has scheduled a meeting tomorrow to review the appeals system in an attempt to speed the process. But officials in the assessor's office defend their performance, saying they evaluate one property at a time before making any determination on reductions.

Wednesday, new appeals were continuing to pile up, with many residents seeking the assistance of county workers in preparing their challenges.

"We literally have boxes and boxes of them that haven't even been entered into the computer yet," said Howard Whitcomb, a manager in the assessor's office. "I wish we had a bigger space for the people coming in. A lot of people have read newspaper headlines and articles saying that property values have gone down."

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