Unexpected Tax Bills Face Some Quake Victims


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

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

The regular property taxes will include a supplemental tax based on when quake 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 residence with her husband, Art. "In the end, it was like a loan."

Officials with the county assessor's office disagreed, saying property owners received true tax breaks, but that they are available only for as long as repairs remain ongoing. Before a 1994 change by the state Legislature, the tax break available to property owners facing a 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 their original levels, it asked city building and safety officials to supply a list of those who pulled permits for repairs and have since completed their work.

Those were the nearly 5,200 property owners who were notified that they were now 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 or 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 being assessed at lower tax levels.

Goodrich acknowledged that about 70% of the 5,200 property owners appeared to need more time to complete their 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 may be upset or confused.

"I do agree it's confusing," Goodrich said. "This county opposed the change of law because it was going to be confusing."

Goodrich said he believed many property owners may have missed the fact that the tax break was only good while repairs were being done because so many were overwhelmed by the earthquake itself.

"I would not be surprised that very few taxpayers, because of the trauma of the earthquake, knew what they were applying for," he said. "Many were in a stupor."

Goodrich said the law was discussed in the application but that many property owners were unaware of it.

Sue Rosen just wants to finish fixing her home without facing any more unexpected bills.

She said the family home was assessed at about $170,000 before the earthquake and then about $110,000 after the quake.

Rosen said repairs, which are ongoing, are expected to cost between $40,000 and $50,000. Normally, annual property taxes are about $1,800, but now it appears an additional $650 will be due, she said.

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