Editorial: County delinquent on property tax claimsWhen it comes to collecting property taxes, San Mateo County makes it crystal clear that your tax bill must be paid by a specific date, or you will incur a penalty. But the county can take up to two years to address a property owner's claim that a tax assessment is in error, and is due a refund from the county.
In fact, as Atherton resident Carol Flaherty found out recently, it can take as long as 17 months for a property tax appeal to be heard and even longer to be processed, even if your case is a no-brainer.
The reasons are many, but at the top of the list appears to be questionable management of the process by county officials, who have done little to improve customer service as property tax appeals grew from 1,472 a year in 2008 to 2,400 last year. And all of these appeals can take months for a simple reason: There is only one three-person board to hear all the cases, and until very recently, that board has had only one clerk to process the claims and decisions. With approximately 250 working days a year, the appeals board would have to hold and process 10 or so claims each working day, a tall order even in a well-managed system.
The county's struggling property tax appeals process is not overseen by the elected assessor-recorder, but by the county manager's office, which did not have a substitute able to fill the breech when the only property tax appeals clerk went out on what became a long-term medical leave in March. When that happened, Ms. Flaherty's case and all others pending before the board became stuck, moving nowhere despite Ms. Flaherty's pleas.
The appeals board had ruled in her favor last March, just before the clerk went out on leave, and she expected to receive a check from the county to reimburse her for the amount she overpaid, plus interest. Instead, she was subjected to another delay and did not receive her check until early this month, some 22 months after filing the appeal.
As the story of what happened to Ms. Flaherty unfolded, it became clear that the county had not formulated a back-up plan in case a key staff member was out sick or, heaven forbid, on long-term medical leave. With only one appeals board, and one clerk with no cross-trained back-up to service an ever-growing number of appeals, the county was caught flat-footed when the clerk could no longer report to work.
Last week's Almanac story about Ms. Flaherty's case described a far different property tax appeals process in neighboring Santa Clara County, which has a much larger operation that can process more than 10,000 property tax appeals a year. In that county, a third appeals board was added in 2010, which enables the county to hear many more cases a year.
In San Mateo County, a new, full-time clerk has been hired in an effort to speed the appeals process, and the clerk who was away on medical leave is back and working part time. And a county official said new software to help speed the process will be up and running in four or five months.
Since 2008, the turbulent real estate market has created a demand for more frequent reassessments, and a more efficient process to bring property taxes in line with current values. The county does a good job in making sure all residents pay what they owe in property taxes every year. Now we hope county supervisors and other top officials will take note of Carol Flaherty's incredible odyssey to simply get an appeals hearing and a refund. Something went wrong in her case, and we hope matters improve in the months ahead.