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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Reassessments: Long and Winding Road

September 21, 1993

It's bad enough to have bought a home near the top of the market in 1990 or 1991 and to have seen its value decline by thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands. What's worse is to try to get your property tax reduced because of the falling value and to run into the delays that are all too common nowadays at the Orange County assessor's office.

State law allows an automatic 2% increase in assessed value each year. That wasn't much of a problem in the early and mid-1980s, when the real value of most houses increased far more than 2% yearly; almost every homeowner who bought before 1988 has an assessment lower than the actual market value. But for many of those who bought later, values have dropped.

Those whose houses are now worth less are entitled to cuts in assessments, which should mean reductions in property taxes. The problem with appealing an assessment in Orange County is that there's a two-year wait to be heard. The backlog is 17,000 now, and this may increase by 35,000 when workers have a count of the appeals filed by this year's deadline, which was last Wednesday.

Orange County Assessor Bradley L. Jacobs said his office is "very careful, very efficient" in assessing homes. Jacobs has done good work in getting large corporations to pay their fair share of property taxes, but he should borrow tactics from neighboring counties to let taxpayers know they can question assessments and to ensure that they won't have to endure a long, cumbersome appeal process. Some other counties' assessors rightly use public service announcements and press releases to make homeowners aware they can ask for reassessments by phone or letter and that their requests will be handled speedily.

State law requires that assessors recognize reductions in property market values, but the law is vague enough to allow differing interpretations of what an assessor must do. Jacobs contended that Los Angeles County went too far in reducing property values without considering parcels individually. San Diego County, however, did not follow the Los Angeles method but nonetheless has virtually no backlog of appeals.

One assistant to Jacobs said the office was reluctant to publicize the opportunity to dispute assessments because that might create a paperwork blizzard that would overwhelm the office. That's the kind of reasoning that gives bureaucracies a bad name. What about the needs of the taxpayers? Orange County property taxpayers deserve better.

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