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L.A. County retools tax bills

Property owners will find new features, one designed to clearly warn them of delinquencies.

September 28, 2003|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County's 2003 property tax bills, which will be mailed late this week, feature an important change meant to clearly warn owners of delinquencies that could result in the seizure and sale of their homes.

The newly designed bills notify property owners -- in bold print against a bright pink background -- of back taxes owed. Additionally, the stub that is presented to cashiers by owners who pay their taxes in person clearly shows any delinquency. Cashiers can then remind the taxpayers of their overdue payments and penalties.

These changes and other reforms passed by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors in March were prompted by the plight of an 85-year-old Inglewood man whose home was sold by the county after he unknowingly failed to pay a $546 tax bill that had been sent to his address in the previous owner's name. Terrell Dotson has since returned to his home but only after receiving help from the tax collector, a county supervisor and others.

Taxpayers typically become delinquent either because they fail to receive bills or because they hold off payment while disputing a bill, said Donna Doss, assistant treasurer and tax collector for Los Angeles County.

Some property owners fail to pay "supplemental" tax bills that arrive during the year. These reflect the difference between the previously assessed value of one's property and the current assessed value. The bills are an additional, not a substitute, tax bill.

Homeowners should receive property tax bills by early November; if not, call the county tax collector and request a substitute bill. This year's payments must be postmarked by Dec. 10 and April 12.

"State law says you're responsible for paying the bills on time," Doss said. "Even if you're not in receipt of the bill."

If only Beth Weitz had known that. The 60-year-old owner of a two-bedroom condo in West Los Angeles failed to receive her property tax bill in October 1998, two months after moving into her home. The bill was mailed to the previous owners at their new address, she said, but they failed to forward the bill. New to the process of paying property taxes and unaware that they were owed even on a recently bought property, she missed one payment of $3,216.

Over the course of five years -- the time the Los Angeles County treasurer and tax collector gives owners to resolve delinquent bills before the property is auctioned -- Weitz received and promptly paid her property tax bills, unaware that she was accruing penalties for the missed payment.

"Because of the tiny print on the bill, I missed that I was delinquent," Weitz said. "Imagine my surprise when I just received a pink notice in the mail saying I owe $6,023 in back taxes and penalties."

She has agreed to pay the amount owed and will keep her home.

The treasurer-tax collector hopes that cases such as Weitz's and Dotson's, which Doss said occur infrequently, will be fewer after this year's changes. Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties' tax bills will not reflect any changes this year, as most of those counties already have addressed the problems Los Angeles County now is tackling.

To help ensure that Los Angeles County property owners, especially the elderly and those needing assistance, receive adequate notice of delinquencies, the treasurer and tax collector's office has put these additional reforms in place:

* Each August, homeowners who are in arrears will receive a separate tax bill that lists all the years for which they have a delinquency.

* Elderly homeowners and those with special needs now have the option to designate a third party, such as a friend or relative, to receive delinquency notices on their behalf and to be notified about the pending sale of a property.

* Owner-occupied properties will not be sold until the owner has been notified in person by a representative of the county's Department of Community and Senior Services and the Department of Consumer Affairs, and has been advised of assistance and payment plans available.

Property owners who fall behind in tax payments can avoid losing their homes if they pay the entire delinquent bill or make a down payment of 20% on what is owed and then pay 20% of the back taxes each year until the debt is resolved, Doss said. Owners who are in default have until 5 p.m. the day before an auction to redeem their property.

Under the new system, property owners will be informed of delinquencies multiple times and in several ways, in addition to fine-print notices accompanying bills.

"It's our goal to collect taxes," Doss said, "not to see people lose their homes."



Easing the pain of a taxing day

If your property tax bill has not arrived by Nov. 5, call your county tax collector and request a substitute bill. You must return it, along with your payment, by Dec. 10. Penalties accrue after that date, and failure to receive a bill does not excuse nonpayment.

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