Quake Victims Face Unexpected Tax Bills : Property: Change in state law means breaks given for damage in temblor end when repairs are finished, not at close of fiscal year. Notices sent by county have spread anger and confusion.


Many of the 74,000 Los Angeles County property owners who received tax breaks after the Northridge earthquake soon will be hit with unexpected tax bills because of a 1994 change in state law, officials said Tuesday.

The county assessor's office already has notified nearly 5,200 property owners that their homes, apartments, office buildings or other property will no longer be assessed at lower levels because damage from the Jan. 17, 1994, temblor has been repaired.

The regular property taxes will include a supplemental tax based on when earthquake repairs were completed.

But the notices left many property owners surprised, angry and confused because their repairs are still continuing.

"They're asking us to give [the tax breaks] back," said Sue Rosen, a North Hills resident who owns a single-family home with her husband, Art. "In the end it was like a loan."

Officials with the county assessor's office disagreed, saying that property owners received true tax breaks but that they are available only for as long as repairs are ongoing. Before a 1994 change by the legislature, the tax break available to property owners facing calamity ran through the entire fiscal year, officials said. The new law stipulates that the tax break ends when repairs are completed.

"They got a tax break for the number of months during which their property was damaged," said Max Goodrich, the county's assistant assessor. "It's not a loan. This is not expected to be repaid at any point."

Goodrich said about 87,000 property owners applied for tax relief after the earthquake, but some did not qualify or did not provide complete information. Many of them apparently did not realize that as soon as they repaired their property they would be reassessed at the higher tax level, he said.

When the assessor's office decided recently to start restoring property assessments to original levels, they asked city building and safety officials to supply a list of those who obtained permits for repairs and had since completed their work. Those were the nearly 5,200 property owners notified that they are being assessed at pre-earthquake levels.

That caused a problem for many property owners who had completed some work but were still trying to finish non-permit work such as painting, repairing cracked walls and installing carpets.

Goodrich and Jerry Fritz, director of assessor operations for appraisals, said those 5,200 property owners will be notified this week of an appeal process that may allow them to continue to be assessed at lower tax levels.

Goodrich acknowledged that about 70% of the 5,200 property owners appeared to need more time to complete repairs.

"The information we got was not complete," he said. "This is a way of providing a remedy."

Goodrich--who said he expects it to take many months before all 74,000-plus cases are addressed--and others said they understand why property owners are confused.

Goodrich said many property owners may have missed the fact that the tax break was good only while repairs were under way because they were overwhelmed by the earthquake.

"Many were in a stupor," he conceded.

But Sue Rosen just wants to finish fixing her home without facing more unexpected bills. She said her family's home was assessed at about $170,000 before the earthquake and about $110,000 afterward.

Rosen said ongoing repairs are expected to cost between $40,000 and $50,000. And now it looks like she will have to pay an additional $650 in taxes, she said.

"I think they should totally void out that supplementary tax bill," she said. "The whole thing was misleading.

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