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Assessor Says His Office Not at Fault : Taxes: He insists that it's the Appeals Board clerk who's to blame for a deadline snafu that forced the county to accept property owners' estimates.


SANTA ANA — County Assessor Bradley L. Jacobs on Thursday said his office was not responsible for bungling more than 170 property assessment appeals and directed blame for the situation at the Appeals Board clerk.

Jacobs said it was solely the responsibility of Clerk Phyllis A. Henderson to make sure that residents and businesses appealing their property taxes receive a hearing on the matter before the two-year deadline expires.

The assessor said that for the past seven years he had gone beyond the duties of his office by notifying Henderson when appeal deadlines were approaching but that he stopped giving her those status reports in July after her office said his reports were no longer needed.

"The clerk of the board told us to stop sending the notices because they claimed that their system would handle it," Jacobs said. "We stopped at their insistence."

Jacobs said he didn't know if he had received a memo from the clerk about halting the reminders.

Henderson did not return repeated calls to her office Thursday.

She has previously said she doesn't know what happened to the missing cases and is unsure whether the assessor forwarded them or whether her staff misplaced the files.

Because the cases were not reviewed before the statutory deadline, the county was forced to accept the owners' estimates of the value of their properties instead of the assessor's valuation--a difference of about $172 million in taxable property.

Jacobs' comments were the first comprehensive response from his office since county officials discovered that 178 cases passed their review deadlines. Jacobs, who had ordered his staff not to discuss the situation this week, said he had been attending an out-of-town conference for the past several days and could not comment.

Even though he said the clerk was responsible for the mistakes, Jacobs said Thursday that he was "uncomfortable" assigning blame.

"I don't think finger-pointing is productive," he said. "It's a real unfortunate situation, we realize that it's not our problem. But it was probably a human systems error . . . regardless of fault, we want to focus on fixing the problem."

He said he will again send remainders to the clerk to alert her office that appeal deadlines are approaching.

"I'm an engineer, and engineers focus on solving problems," he said.

County supervisors, who have sharply criticized both the clerk and the assessor, have called for an extensive investigation into the process. Henderson, who is appointed by the board to her position, has been meeting with supervisors this week to discuss her role in the matter. Because Jacobs is an elected official, he does not report to the board. Nonetheless, the board has been considering revoking a raise Jacobs recently received from the board.

"The first thing we're striving to do is identify the breakdown and prevent a re-occurrence," said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez. "We'd like to know where the breakdown occurred and who is responsible."

This week, state officials said Orange County's practice of having property owners send their appeals to the assessor instead of the clerk was fraught with potential "conflict of interests" problems and may be a violation of state law. They said Orange County appears to be the only county in the state that doesn't require appeals to be sent directly to the clerk.

Jacobs acknowledged Thursday that the county's system may be flawed. He said he has asked the appeals clerk to assume the responsibility of receiving the appeals at least half a dozen times over the years but she has declined.

Jacobs said the county asked the assessor in 1977 to handle the first appeals to make sure that the property owner had filled out the forms correctly. After checking the forms for completeness, the assessor sends the files to the clerk and never deals with the files again.

Earlier this week, Henderson said she has always wanted to be the one to initially receive the appeals. She also said the recent foul-up might have been avoided had the county followed the practice of other counties.

Jacobs defended the workers in his office and said they have been doing an "exceptional" work despite a tremendous workload that has been caused by the state's recession. Once property values started to fall in the state, Jacobs said, his office was flooded with tens of thousands of appeals of property assessments.

Jacobs said most of the appraisers in his office who handle the assessment appeals don't pay attention to the two-year deadline because it is the clerk's duty.

In recent weeks, some county appraisers have contacted some residents about their cases, even though their appeals had expired.

Bob Dodson filed an assessment appeal in 1992, when the county increased his tax bill by $1,000 a year after he built a new garage and apartment for his Yorba Linda home. He said an appraiser called about month after the two-year deadline expired.

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