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Steiner Seeks to Ease Backlog in Appraisals : Assessments: Supervisor says he talked with county assessor to discuss ways to expedite property value appeals.


SANTA ANA — Supervisor William G. Steiner said Thursday he has asked county Assessor Bradley L. Jacobs what measures could be taken to reduce the massive backlog of property assessment appeals, and whether internal changes in the assessor's office would permit quicker and more efficient property evaluations.

"I detect a frustration by constituents and friends, and even my own family on this issue," Steiner said. "I was asking Brad for his perspective. I wanted to know whether he had adequate resources to deal with appeals more quickly, and whether we need a change in the internal system to expedite the appeals process."

Steiner said he was surprised to learn this week in The Times that the county had a backlog of about 17,000 appeals from past years, and that about 35,000 more challenges to this year's assessments were expected to be postmarked by the Wednesday deadline just passed.

It takes about two years from the time an appeal is filed before a hearing is held in Orange County, the assessor's office said.

The Times also reported that the assessor's office does little to inform the public how they can get property assessments reduced outside the time-consuming appeals process, which requires the completion of official forms. The result has been a record number of formal appeals, when a simple letter or telephone call might suffice.

Other Southern California counties have been more aggressive in reducing property assessments as property values decline. State law requires that assessors recognize declines in property values if the market value drops, but is vague on how many properties should be surveyed each year.

Jacobs and his staff have defended their appraisal process, saying that individual property values are reduced only after careful case-by-case examination. The number of appeals, he has said, is not unusual because property owners are concerned about the economy. On Thursday, however, Jacobs did not return a call for comment on his discussions with Steiner.

Because state law is unclear on how often and quickly an assessor must reappraise property, counties have adopted different approaches to dealing with the problem.

In San Diego County, assessors encourage property owners to challenge their valuations and review each challenge before the formal appeals process begins. They do not, however, conduct a wholesale survey of properties and adjust values downward unless a property owner complains. The county has virtually no backlog of appeals.

Like San Diego County, Los Angeles County used to examine only properties whose owners asked for a review. But earlier this year, after warnings by the State Board of Equalization, assessors reviewed 350,000 residential parcels that had changed ownership since 1988 in a sample study and reduced the value of about 270,000 properties.

County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said that Jacobs told him this week that Los Angeles County is wrong to have made such a widespread reduction in property values without considering each individual parcel.

"He says L.A. County cannot create a computer program and just reduce properties like that," Schneider said. "He said it would never hold up if challenged in court."

Because Jacobs is an elected official, the Board of Supervisors cannot give him direction. They can, however, increase his budget or offer him more assistance in the form of more appraisers or other personnel.

Steiner said Jacobs agreed to discuss the issue with him again.

The county supervisor said his own daughter and her husband are distressed that the value of their Rancho Santa Margarita home--which they bought three years ago--has dropped $50,000, but its assessment goes up 2% each year. Proposition 13 permits assessors to increase values by 2% each year if their assessed value remains below market value. If the assessed value is higher than market value, Proposition 8 requires the assessment be lowered to market value.

"I want to understand where Brad is coming from on this," Steiner said. "I'm the new kid on the block. After I get a handle on this, maybe I'll bring it up with other members of the board."

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