For the past eight years, Santa Clara County residents who disputed their property assessment had to cough up $40—even if they won the appeal.
Not anymore. The Board of Supervisors repealed the fee Tuesday, calling it a fundamental issue of fairness.
“Charging a member of the public a $40 fee for the right to appeal, and then keeping the fee even after we acknowledge our error—there's just no way to justify that,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian, who led the effort to kill the fee. “It's patently unfair to make a mistake, and then charge a member of the public who has to go to the time and trouble of getting us to correct it. That's just adding insult to injury."
The North County supervisor learned about the issue from a constituent at one of his “sidewalk office hours” sessions.
"I remember the conversation well," Simitian said. "The gentleman I was talking to asked me, 'Are you aware there's a fee for an assessment appeal?' And I said, yes I was. And then he asked, 'Are you aware that the county keeps the fee, even when the county is wrong?' Frankly, I wasn't. So I came back to the office and started asking some questions."
Last year, residents filed 5,400 appeals, which collective raked in $218,000 in fees. About one-third of them resulted in an adjustment, according to the County Assessor’s Office.
"I know the fee involved is relatively modest, but that's really not the point," Simitian said. "I just couldn't countenance telling people: We fouled up, and now we're charging you to fix our error. It's simply a question of treating the public right."
Initially, Simitian wanted to refund the fee only to people who prevailed on their appeal.
“Candidly, this has taken longer to resolve than I expected,” he said. "Ultimately, the easiest solution turned out to be eliminating the fee altogether.”
Supervisors created the filing fee in 2007, despite opposition from county Assessor Larry Stone.
"In 2007, I thought it was wrong for the county to charge a taxpayer a processing fee when ultimately the property owner's opinion of value may be accurate,” Stone said. "The appraisal of real property is more an art than a science, and sometimes we do over assess property. My appraisers want to get it right. Charging a property owner a fee for what ultimately may be a legitimate over assessment sends the wrong message.”