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Parcel tax to help South Pasadena schools is a no-show on bills

The school district forgot to submit the appropriate paperwork to L.A. County to have the new tax included on annual property tax bills. The district is paying $15,000 to fix its mistake.

November 27, 2009|By Esmeralda Bermudez

It is said that nothing is certain but death and taxes -- except in South Pasadena, where a hard-won parcel tax to aid public schools is missing from residents' Los Angeles County property tax bill.

The school district forgot to submit to the county assessor's office the paperwork for the voter-approved assessment and the new tax of up to $288 for homeowners. The mistake wasn't discovered until the county bills were mailed about a month ago.

Now the South Pasadena Unified School District is paying $15,000 from its general fund to fix it.

"We don't know exactly who to blame for the glitch," said school board President Elisabeth Eilers. "This happened at a time when we were going through a lot of changes at the district."

Voters were in the midst of a heated campaign over Measure S in June, she said, when the superintendent resigned and Interim Superintendent John Fitzpatrick was appointed.

The tax, passed June 16 by a slim margin, will generate about $1.8 million annually to help shield the school district from the effects of state budget cuts to education. The victory followed intense small-town campaigning, with supporters organizing coffee meetings and phone banks. They distributed pamphlets door to door, planted yard signs all over town, and a few even painted their car windows with messages of support.

Soon after the passage, Mary Anne McCabe, assistant superintendent of the district's business office, which handles tax matters, also resigned. Robert Burch, a district business consultant, took over.

The county's Aug. 31 deadline to submit the paperwork for local assessments to be included on property tax bills passed without notice. "There was an assumption by everyone that the previous business person had done all the work, but when we found out otherwise, we had to find another alternative," Fitzpatrick said.

District officials decided to hire a Temecula-based company for $15,000 to send out bills. In addition, the district must absorb the cost of staff time to collect the money.

"We don't have a lot of manpower or experience with these things, so it was best to leave it to them," Eilers said.

If the district had met the deadline, the county would have charged only $1,500 to include the tax on the assessor's annual bill, said Arlene Barrera, chief of the property tax division.

As homeowners began to receive their supplementary bills last week, the phone at City Hall started ringing. The letter said that "due to timing issues," the special tax was not placed on the tax roll, but it did not fully explain the mistake. Confused by the contractor's unfamiliar letterhead, some thought the bill was a fraud, Fitzpatrick said.

"Most people are cooperating," he said. "We've already received hundreds of checks."

The additional tax money eliminates the need for teacher layoffs, class size increases and cuts to libraries, the arts, music and other academic programs. Multidwelling parcel owners will pay $95 per year and the rest will pay $288.

Some residents didn't consider the oversight a big deal, but were glad to see it was addressed by the district.

"It's one of those unfortunate human errors," said Julie Giulioni, president of the South Pasadena Educational Foundation, which raises about half a million dollars for South Pasadena schools each year. "We've got much bigger problems to deal with than this as you look at state budget cuts and the impact they will have on education."

esmeralda.bermudez@

latimes.com

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