Monday, July 2, 2012

(Marin County) Grand jury takes exception to exemptions

by Jason Walsh
Are Marin property owners paying hundreds of dollars more in property taxes than they should?

That's the question a Marin County Civil Grand Jury tried to find out recently after a low-income resident of Larkspur last year stumbled onto a little-known property tax exemption that saved him $109.

That senior citizen's lucky savings inspired the grand jury to investigate other property tax exemptions, and urge County tax officials to better publicize them.

In its report, titled "Death and Taxes: For the Former There Are No Exemption, But for the Latter There Are," the grand jury attempts to explain the details and language on a Marin County property tax bill.

The report uses an anonymous tax bill from a Mill Valley resident as its example and assigns to it to a "fictional property owner" named John Doe.

In its example, the grand jury shows Mr. Doe and his $1,317,946 home faced with a smorgasbord of local taxing agencies (i.e. school districts, sewer agencies, libraries, etc.), multiple types of tax levies, and mysterious mentions of a 1915 Act Assessment and taxes for a Mello-Roos Bond.

"After that it becomes complicated," states the grand jury. "There may be exemptions for Levy 3 items, Mello-Roos and 1915 Bonds. Then again, there may not be. There is no indication one way or the other on the tax bill."

Adds the grand jury: "At this point John's head is about to explode."

The jury found the actual property tax based on home value calculated by the County Assessor's office to be generally straightforward--the main beef in the report is with the parcel tax entities which "are responsible for providing accurate, comprehensive and timely information to the property owner."

But the report argues that there isn't enough information on the tax bill for property owners to determine if they qualify for a parcel-tax exemption; often the person answering the phone listed on the bill with the taxing entities is "not always responsive or informed" as they should be; and when the taxing entities make mistakes they don't make it easy to correct said mistakes.

According to the report, there are about 153 parcel-taxing entities in Marin—of those, only about one-third offer any type of exemptions

In its conclusion, the jury recommends that the County modify its "User's Manual: Special Assessment System" to require taxing entities to list what exemptions are allowed and recommend that the entities maintain the information on their websites. They also suggest that Marin County Secured Tax statements be amended to explain why taxing agencies' phone numbers are on the bill and to designate with an asterisk which taxing agencies offer exemptions, and to include the exemption information on the inserts that come with the bills.

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