A plan by the Orange County assessor to inspect nearly half of the county's parcels for unreported property improvements is back on track after county supervisors won assurance that field inspectors would not be overly nosy.
Assessor Webster J. Guillory told supervisors last week that the three-year, $17-million review would be handled in a "professional manner" and that property owners probably would not even realize that their property had been inspected. Satisfied, the supervisors voted to approve the plan.
It will be the office's first major field inspection in 25 years, Guillory said, and would increase the taxes paid by property owners who are found to have made improvements -- such as room additions, porches and decks -- without the county's knowledge.
Two weeks ago, supervisors delayed Guillory's plan to hire and train at least 29 employees who would look for structural improvements that have escaped the assessor's notice.
The assessor was told he couldn't tap a $6.8-million state grant until he provided more information on how inspectors would do their job. Supervisors had expressed concern that nosy and overzealous field inspectors might peek over fences and intrude on residents.
Supervisor Bill Campbell said that when he campaigned for office, property owners complained of code enforcement officers who knocked on doors with a "storm trooper" mentality.
Guillory said last week that his deputy assessors "do not do code enforcement," and that part of their training would include public relations. After hearing Guillory's explanation, Campbell apologized for his remarks.
The president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. said in a telephone interview that he wondered whether aerial photographs and satellite imagery would be used as inspection tools. "It raises the element of Big Brother," said Jon Coupal.
Guillory said his office would not use satellite imagery, as do other counties, but that aerial photographs would be viewed to detect new construction.
Coupal said the association also was concerned "that inspectors may use [binoculars] to peer into windows." He urged inspectors to maintain a "sense of proportion."
"If someone has a non-permitted fence, that's not a big deal compared to a new, three-story home," Coupal said.
"But things like a new deck? That shouldn't cause any heartburn."
"We're going to do this professionally," Guillory said.
Neighborhoods will be notified of a pending inspection with fliers, so-called door-knockers and local media, he said.
As early as October, the assessor's squad, with cards identifying them as deputy assessors, will begin to fan out in search of new construction such as second-floor additions and new garages, swimming pools, fireplaces and other improvements that have added value to the property. Items such as new roofs, garage doors, and new paint are considered maintenance and are not assessable, he said.
In most cases, inspectors will not need to go onto the property, Guillory said, but simply drive the neighborhood, checking assessor records against what they see.
"This is done by sight," Guillory said. "If they see anything, any improvements that are not listed in the assessor's office, those properties will be flagged." Those property owners would then be sent a letter requesting more information.
"Only a small percentage [of inspectors] will knock on doors," Guillory said. "In most cases, folks won't even notice that we're there."
Inspectors needing access to a property will be instructed to get the owner's permission, Guillory said.
Although a memo Guillory sent to board members and county officials said that deputy inspectors would wear "Special Projects" T-shirts with the county seal, that attire may be dropped in favor of civilian clothing.
"We haven't made up our minds yet, but we're thinking that a business or professional attire will be suitable," he said.