VENTURA — The line snaked past a velvet rope, around the corner from a bank of payment windows and nearly reached the giant front doors at the Ventura County Government Center.
As people stood gripping pens in their teeth and flipping through checkbooks, Ventura County Treasurer-Tax Collector Hal Pittman strolled the line and offered chocolates from a bowl.
Tuesday was the deadline for the second of two annual property tax payments--less than a week before federal and state income taxes are due. Predictably, many in line said they were not happy to be doling out additional dollars.
"I think I'm already paying enough in income taxes. Why should I have to pay more?" griped Marie Kenton, an Ojai resident, who was preparing to cut a large check for her two houses and another vacant lot that she owns.
Simi Valley homeowner Ron Anderson, at the end of the 30-deep line, was far more relaxed. He told a story about how his property taxes rose after buying a new house.
"I'm neutral about all this," Anderson said. "We have to pay because the government needs money to operate."
In all, 226,946 property tax bills totaling nearly $627 million went out for 2000-01, Pittman said. Installments were due Dec. 11 and on Tuesday. Revenue raised by the tax is used to pay for a variety of local government services such as education, water, sewer, refuse collection, land-use planning and police patrols.
As of late Tuesday, Pittman's office had not received the more than $2 million due from Southern California Edison, the utility that has been near bankruptcy but has promised to make property tax payments.
Probably in the mail, Pittman said with a smile.
While most residents were shelling out a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, the top 10 property taxpayers in the county, all businesses, owe a total of more than $25 million for the billing year.
Edison was second on the list behind Amgen, with a bill of $6.2 million, and just ahead of Verizon Communications, which owes $3.4 million. Procter & Gamble Paper Products was billed $3.2 million, and Pacific Bell led a pack of six companies that each owe more than $1 million.
Margaret Holmes wasn't very interested in hearing about million-dollar tax bills. Writing "Two-thousand" on her personal check made the Oak View resident cringe.
"This is bad all the time," Holmes said of paying property taxes. "I mean, I don't mind paying some but not as much as I have to."
Many residents mistakenly believe property taxes go to county government, but Pittman noted that only about 18 cents of each dollar reaches county coffers. The remainder goes to cities and schools, he said.
"Sales tax runs the county, not this money," said Pittman, sporting, as he always does on payment days, a dark-colored necktie dotted with dollar signs.
About the only person smiling in line was Nadia Gutierrez, a local college student who came to drop off her parents' $441 property tax payment. Gutierrez lives with them in Ventura and was on spring break.
"It's really expensive to live here. I mean, you've got to make a lot of money to get by," she said.
Recent projections bear that out. The median home price in the county climbed 44% over the last four years to about $300,000 and could hit $463,000 by 2005, an economist predicted in March. Only one in three families countywide can afford to buy a house, say housing experts at UC Santa Barbara.
While housing prices continue to soar, the total amount of property taxes billed in the county for 2000-01 increased only about 1% over the prior tax year. In dollars, the increase was about $54 million.
Standing in line was not the only option for meeting Tuesday's deadline. Hundreds of people dropped off payments in a box near the entrance of the government center, while others stopped by local post offices to get a Tuesday postmark on their payments.
For anyone who missed Tuesday's deadline, there is no relief.
Pittman said there is an automatic 10% penalty, which jumps to 18% after Dec. 31.