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Waging a Worthy Tax Battle

November 17, 2002

Nobody likes to pay taxes, but the burden grows particularly heavy when the assembled evidence suggests that you're carrying more than your fair share. That's why the system has checks and balances to guarantee suspicious taxpayers their day in court.

But if your name is William Bunker, make that days, weeks, months and years spent in court.

The San Juan Capistrano homeowner began fighting for a property tax reduction in 1992. Bunker suspected that Orange County had broken a state law by not granting him the property tax refund, and a state appeals court this month sided with the irate homeowner.

Bunker's victory is good news for an estimated 1,500 property owners who also might qualify for property tax refunds based on appeals filed during the early 1990s.

Bunker's odyssey began when the sagging economy sent local property tax values plummeting. The county assessor's office had set the value of Bunker's home at $940,221 for the 1992-93 tax year. Bunker filed an appeal on Sept. 6, 1992, arguing that the recession had knocked the value of his property down to $770,000.

By law, Orange County should have responded to Bunker's appeal within two years. But the rejection letter wasn't posted for 26 months. It was an expensive decision because county assessors who miss the review deadline must stick with the property owner's proposed value for a property.

The tale has an added twist. A month after the county rejected Bunker's argument, Orange County plunged itself into bankruptcy, and a federal judge froze all outstanding property tax appeals. In the year before the bankruptcy, the county Assessment Appeals Board had amassed a backlog of 62,000 review requests -- including Bank of America and other big companies.

Bunker's lawsuit alleges that, at the time of the bankruptcy, 4,000 pending appeals had slipped beyond the two-year deadline, and that 1,500 subsequently suffered the same fate as his appeal.

A 1998 lawsuit was thrown out by a judge, but an appellate court just ruled that Bunker has a legitimate complaint and that the case should be tried in Orange County Superior Court. So stay tuned.

The county maintains it has procedures in place to avoid missing deadlines. But Bunker's battle should be of broader interest because it underscores the need for property owners to challenge assessments that seem at odds with reality.

The Bunker case might not qualify as taxation without representation, but it's clearly taxation with misrepresentation. And cheers to Bunker for not giving up his fight.

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