Troubled by a massive backlog of property assessment appeals, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to help the county assessor find quicker, more efficient ways to process the requests for tax relief.
Calling the current backlog “unacceptable,” Supervisor William G. Steiner said the county should consider hiring more people to review the appeals and upgrade County Assessor Bradley L. Jacobs’ computer system.
“Perhaps we’re going to need to take a look at the process and make sure it’s more understandable and user friendly . . . for the taxpayer,” Steiner said.
The board’s action follows reports in The Times that thousands of appeals remain unresolved and that many taxpayers must wait two years before their appeals are settled.
County officials said there are 25,600 cases left over from previous years and estimated that more than 40,000 additional appeals for tax breaks have been filed this year.
Jacobs and his staff have defended the appraisal process, saying that individual property values are reduced only after careful case-by-case examination.
Although the assessor’s office is required by law to resolve each appeal within two years, the workload would take three years to process at the office’s current pace, Steiner said.
Jacobs has indicated that he needs between five and nine additional staff members to handle the burgeoning workload, according to Steiner, who proposed that the board help reduce the backlog.
“This is a significant problem,” Steiner said.
Jacobs was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but Howard Whitcomb, manager of quality assurance in the assessor’s office, welcomed the county’s support.
“It’s definitely a positive thing,” Whitcomb said. “The assessor would be glad to have more resources.”
Most property assessment appeals are filed by homeowners who contend they should receive tax breaks as a result of the declining market value of their homes, caused by the lingering economic downturn.
But instead of reductions of their property assessments, many homeowners in Orange County have been confronted with 2% annual increases. State law permits the assessor to increase the assessments by 2% each year, but also requires that the assessor respond to declines in property values if the market drops.
While other Southern California counties have been aggressive in reducing assessments as property values decline, the Orange County assessor’s office has done little to inform homeowners about how they can get their assessments reduced outside the time-consuming appeals process.
In San Diego County, for example, taxpayers are encouraged to request a reduction of property assessments over the phone and by mail to avoid the formal appeals process. Orange County, while accepting such requests, does not publicize those remedies.
“There’s no reason that Orange County can’t do what other counties are doing,” said Board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder. “Whatever it takes, we should do it.”
With Tuesday’s action, the board unanimously agreed to have the county administrative office, the county counsel and the clerk of the board provide assistance to the assessor to find ways to reduce the backlog. The county staff is scheduled to come back to the board in 30 days with recommendations on how to resolve the problem.
The amount of money needed to address the problem has not been determined, county officials said.
Although the board can allocate resources to help the assessor handle the appeals, the supervisors have no authority to tell Jacobs, an elected official, how to run his office.