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Bill Would Curb Seizure, Sale of Homes Over Unpaid Taxes

August 17, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

One delinquent property tax bill forever changed the life of 85-year-old Terrell Dotson. Because of the $546 bill, which the World War II veteran didn't realize he owed, Los Angeles County sold his condo, leaving Dotson homeless, surviving on charity and fighting to get his property back.

Now his experience has provided the impetus for a proposed law that could change the fortunes of other homeowners throughout the state. Dotson's fortunes may soon change too. His supporters and county officials hope to wrap up a deal this week that will return Dotson's former property to him.

Meanwhile, supporters hope that the bill, which has already passed the Senate, will reduce the likelihood that others suffer the same fate.

"The tragedy that befell this 85-year-old L.A. County resident was just numbing to me," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who sponsored the legislation. "It showed that we don't think beyond the statute sometimes.... I said, 'This has got to be fixed.' "

The bill, SB 663, would require counties to make personal contact with a homeowner before a home could be sold at foreclosure because of delinquency in payment of property taxes. If such contact was not achieved, the sale would have to be canceled until contact was made.

Current law requires only that officials make one attempt at personal contact. Even if that attempt is unsuccessful, the home can be sold.

Supporters say the bill would ensure that homeowners were aware of their overdue bills before losing their homes. They say it would also benefit anyone who might not understand the tax bills.

"Foreclosure is a drastic thing," said Lenny Goldberg, director of the California Tax Reform Assn. "You've got to take the time and make sure you don't make any mistakes, and that's what this bill says you should do."

So far the bill, now in an Assembly committee, has faced no opposition. Supporters include the Congress of California Seniors and the California Assn. of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors. The law was proposed after a Times story detailing Dotson's experience.

Dotson purchased his Inglewood condominium with cash in 1995. A few months later, the second installment of the annual tax bill came due.

Dotson did not pay that bill, which had been sent out in the previous owner's name. But Dotson paid other bills, often traveling to the tax collector's office to pay in person. Sometimes he paid in odd increments or late, but he established a record of paying his taxes.

The 1995 bill, however, remained delinquent. Taxpayers have five years to pay a delinquent bill before the property is offered at auction. An owner who is in arrears can forestall a sale by paying a delinquent bill before paying a current bill or by paying on an extended plan.

Dotson's supporters -- Reuben Taylor of the Inglewood Police Department and Vacie Thomas of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People -- argued that the problem could have been resolved had someone in the office explained those facts to Dotson.

They said his record of paying should have raised a red flag that he was not a scofflaw but perhaps someone who needed help understanding the system.

At the time, Los Angeles County property owners received only one notice of tax bill delinquency. After that, they were reminded in a small box on a regular bill. The box did not specify the overdue amount.

No staff member made personal contact with Dotson about the auctioning of his home. According to Speier, because he lived in a gated complex, a worker sent to his home could not get to his residence and posted the note in a common area.

In response to Dotson's problem, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted several measures, such as redesigning property tax bills, aimed at helping homeowners avoid similar problems.

In addition, the board wrote a letter to Speier, recounting Dotson's experience and seeking legislation that would require personal consultation before such a home sale.

"This action, although legal, was tragic and has raised the inequities that presently exist in our property tax laws," said the letter, signed by all five supervisors. "We believe that we should take all necessary steps to assist property-owning seniors and others with special needs to meet their property tax obligations in a timely way to avoid a similar fate. This should not happen to anyone."

On his behalf, Dotson's supporters accepted donations and offers of help. An attorney contacted by Taylor later agreed to take on Dotson's case.

Among those moved by Dotson's story was U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson, a World War II veteran and a longtime advocate of services for the homeless. Pregerson read the story and sent the staff of the United States Veterans Initiative in Inglewood to find Dotson.

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