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Homeowners Hit Roof Over Tax Increases : Assessments: Complaints to the county collector soar with the addition of many unexpected special levies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An increasing number of Ventura County homeowners, angry and confused by tax bills far higher than expected, have complained to the county tax collector during the past month as annual tax statements have been mailed.

The tax collector’s office has received about 500 complaints since early November from taxpayers baffled by an array of taxes levied as special assessments against their properties. Payments are due Monday.

These taxes are not reflected on a property’s tax rate or listed on the basic county tax roll. And often the assessments--in some cases equal to the rest of the tax bill--are discovered by property owners only when they receive their first tax bill for a new residence, county officials said.

“We get some of these each year, but we’ve had many more this tax season and from a broader base. Unfortunately, they’re mad at us, but we didn’t do it,” John McKinney, assistant tax collector, said.

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“People are getting into their new homes, and then they’re dying on the vine,” Cynthia Simmons of the tax collector’s office said. “They figure on the first $2,000 in taxes, but then another $1,000 is added on . . . and they’re in a world of hurt.”

A root cause of the problem, McKinney said, is a state tax system that has become extremely complex since passage of tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978. That system, by excluding special assessments against property from the general tax roll, has made tax rates meaningless, he said.

Ventura County’s basic tax rate, which ranges from $1.01 to $1.49 for each $100 of assessed value, has actually dropped since 1978 as old water, sewer and school bonds have been paid off and new bonds have been blocked by a Proposition 13 requirement that new taxes be approved by two-thirds of the voters.

But new, hidden assessments have taken the place of the old taxes. Cities and counties, squeezed by tight budgets, have approved the creation of special districts to provide services government can no longer afford.

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These districts, which can be created unless a majority of property owners in them object in writing, often raise millions of dollars by selling bonds. Then they require owners in the district to pay off the debt.

The special taxes pay for services ranging from those that are the backbone of communities--water, sewer, roads, libraries, parks, street lights and flood control--to extras such as security gates, guards and lush landscaping.

Many of the new assessments pay for benefits received by just one neighborhood and are paid only by owners there. An example is the $417-a-year canal maintenance fee imposed by Oxnard on 875 homeowners who live along public waterways in that city.

Special assessments also have been imposed in recent years to pay for the Telephone Road railroad overpass near a commercial strip in Ventura and for earthquake reinforcement of old shops in Ojai’s historic Arcade area. Another district was formed to build barriers to keep the ocean’s saltwater out of drinking-water basins near the coast.

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Most common among the special taxes are those imposed on residences in new subdivisions, such as the Wood Ranch and Greenbrier developments in Simi Valley.

About 50 owners in Griffin Homes’ Greenbrier tract complained to the City Council this week that they had been misinformed about assessments the developer wants the city to impose to pay for streets, sewers and utilities. The average homeowner’s bill for the utilities would be $1,680 a year for 20 years, or $20,000 as a lump sum.

“We were totally misinformed,” homeowner Judith Owen said. She was notified of the possibility of the fee, but its probability was downplayed by a salesman, Owen said.

Charles J. Dragicevich, senior vice president of Griffin Homes, said the developer had acted in good faith and that buyers were aware of the possible assessment. He said each of the 63 homeowners in the subdivision signed a disclosure statement informing them of the potential fee before their deals were closed.

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Sellers are required to disclose all taxes and assessments against a property before a sale closes. But McKinney and other officials said such disclosures are often buried deep in a stack of escrow documents and the full extent of taxation does not sink in until a tax bill is received.

New Wood Ranch homeowners have recently lodged dozens of complaints with the tax collector, maintaining that their tax bills are much higher than expected, McKinney said. At Wood Ranch, where more than 2,000 residences have been built around a private country club, about $30 million in community improvements were financed not by the developer Olympia-Roberts Co. but through bonds sold by two special assessment districts created by the city. Buyers of the subdivision’s new housing are paying the bill.

For example, tax records show that the owner of one $205,000 Wood Ranch condominium was billed $2,141 in basic property taxes--a sum that corresponds with the 1.08% tax rate in his neighborhood. That includes money to pay off two water bonds, a flood-control bond and the debts of two school districts.

The condominium owner, however, must also pay $1,167 for bonds sold to build three reservoirs, a new four-lane thoroughfare, storm drains, street lights and the main lines for water and sewer at the Wood Ranch project, officials said.

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Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said he is bothered that so many people do not seem to understand that they will be taxed for many of the improvements in their new neighborhoods.

“A lot of people come in and say, ‘These things are really cheap,’ then woops!” Stratton said. “People don’t understand that they’re picking up a second note, so they overpay for a unit and then they’ve got a problem.”

Stratton, who owns a house in Wood Ranch and pays a $1,500 special assessment, said that such fees should be listed as part of the sales price of each property.

“It’s really an outstanding loan against the property,” he said. “But the typical real estate guy is not going to point that out” unless asked about it, he said.

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Many complaints about special assessments came this year not from new buyers but from people who have owned their residences for a long time, especially those who live at Lake Sherwood near Thousand Oaks, McKinney said.

About 170 lake-area residents, many plagued by failing septic tanks, were assessed up to $1,800 on their tax bills to pay for connecting to a newly constructed sewer line.

Resident Carl Price, who as a former president of a Lake Sherwood homeowners group worked on the sewer arrangement, said he will be charged $1,000 for each of the next 10 years to pay for it. The special assessment comprises two-thirds of his entire tax bill, he said.

“I am pretty active, so I knew it was coming,” Price said. “But those who aren’t as involved were shocked. You’re always shocked when your taxes go up $1,000.”

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