Jun 26, 2023
"Jack Buckhorn, the Executive Director of the North Bay Labor Council, spoke during last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, saying he thinks the problem is pervasive. “There’s a systemic problem with your Board when you do not have a balance sheet,” he opined. “How can you run a government, when you do not know where your assets are?”
Seeking New Revenue, Mendocino County Sends Supplemental Property Tax Bills to Thousands of Local Homeowners Who’ve been Under Assessed
Mendocino County, grappling with a significant setback in revenue generation, finds itself in a challenging battle to collect property taxes as Supervisor Ted Williams raises concerns over the staggering number of un-assessed properties. With an estimated thirty percent of properties flying under the radar, Williams has urged his fellow officials to embark on an ambitious mission, aiming to slash this figure by fifty percent within the next two years.
As the fiscal year draws to a close, labor, private citizens and elected officials in Mendocino County are trying to figure out how to bring in more revenue to balance next year’s budget. This year’s $420 million county budget was balanced using $7 million in one-time funds, but a few significant factors remain unknown. Jack Buckhorn, the Executive Director of the North Bay Labor Council, spoke during last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, saying he thinks the problem is pervasive. “There’s a systemic problem with your Board when you do not have a balance sheet,” he opined. “How can you run a government, when you do not know where your assets are?”
The county is playing catch-up when it comes to collecting property taxes. Union negotiators claim this is the missing revenue that could go towards paying them the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), which was not included in this year’s budget. The county has sent out about six thousand supplemental tax bills and escape assessments, asking people to pay taxes on the changed value of their property. Some of them make up for years of missed reassessments. If the supplemental bills are not sent out within four years of the property increasing in value, the county loses that revenue. Taxpayers experiencing sticker shock from bills for years of back taxes have until the end of this week to arrange a payment plan with the tax collector’s office.
Meanwhile, Adam Gaska of Redwood Valley said he’s tracked down a number of properties that have been under-assessed and owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. He said he used a program called Parcel Viewer, which is also used by the county, to put together the values of various parcels, who owns them, and what their tax bill is. “Some properties are about five years in arrears,” he said, adding that he’s tallied up about $750,000 in back taxes alone. One batch, according to his calculations, is owed by one individual operating under several different legal entities, while another is unpaid by a business composed of several different people.
Treasurer Tax Collector Auditor Controller Chamisse Cubbison disputed Gaska’s analysis. “They are not delinquent,” she declared. “They are not even due yet. They are not actually payable until June 30. In some cases there may be more than one installment. So I’d like to be careful about people perhaps not understanding how property taxes work, the amount of time allowed for collections, and that we don’t make examples of people who are not late on their taxes at this point.” She said staff has analyzed one of Gaska’s spreadsheets, and found one parcel that might be eligible for the county to sell off to settle a tax bill, but that would not be until next year.
Supervisor Ted Williams estimates that about thirty percent of the county’s properties are un-assessed, and challenged his colleagues to cut that in half over the next two years. “I would like to set a stretch goal of bringing the county up to date on assessing properties,” he proposed during discussion about the consent calendar on June 20. “Closing the gap by 50 percent, moving from about 70 percent assessment to 85 percent, over 24 months.” The Board agreed to ask for regular updates on the assessment effort in the CEO report.
There are a few impediments, according to Assessor Clerk Recorder Katrina Bartolomie. Her office is still not back up to pre-pandemic staffing levels, though her department is trying to hire four more people. She said in an interview that she currently has seven appraisers, not counting herself, plus an assistant who also works in administration. Her office is one of the key revenue-generating departments that’s converting to a software system called Aumentum, which went live during the pandemic. She says the system generates a lot of time-consuming errors, like mis-calculating the number of structures on a property.
“Ultimately, they purchased a concept that needed to be built for each particular county,” she reflected; “and that concept is still being built.” She added that, though the people who work for Aumentum are helpful, “There’s a lot of times where we don’t know how to do something. It’s bombed, and they don’t know how to do it either. It’s maddening.”
Bartolomie says that appraisals, which are regulated by the state Board of Equalization, rely on a combination of guesswork and granular detail. “Whether it’s sitting on a slab, or it’s a foundation. Anything you can imagine. If it has dual paned windows or single paned windows.” Appraisers also cannot go onto property without the owner’s permission. If they can’t get in touch with the owner, “We’ll estimate what it is. And then hope that the owner calls us and says, how come you’re assessing us? Well, we had to do something, but you tell us what you have, and maybe we can come out and look at it. We’re very happy to change that.”
Gaska, who is running for First District Supervisor, favors taking a hard line. “First off, for this one particular individual, because I am pretty sure that they have more projects that are in the pipeline, that they should do something similar like they did with cannabis growers,” he said, referring to a policy initiated by former Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal, who deprioritized applicants who had not paid their taxes. “If possible, even if they have conditional permits, just suspend them. Whatever business they’re doing in Mendocino County, just stop it. Until they pay.”
While Bartolimie doesn’t have a way of making people submit to an appraisal, she said she’s noticed, anecdotally, that, “Many of those properties, once they get that notice that their land is going to be sold for back taxes, they pay their taxes.”
People who received large bills for back taxes have until the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30, to make other arrangements. “You need to contact the tax collector’s office to see about arranging payment,” Bartolomie urged. “And you need to do that sooner rather than later. Don’t wait.”