The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved reforms designed to improve the way the county notifies property owners of delinquent taxes -- changes that supporters say could help owners keep their homes off the auction block.
The reforms were prompted by the experience of Terrell Dotson, an 85-year-old whose Inglewood home was sold by the county for failure to pay a $546 tax bill.
Although the new measures apply to all property owners, they may provide particular benefit to older people and those who may need assistance. Homeowners will receive much greater notification of delinquent taxes, including face-to-face interviews.
Under the new system, "When you're delinquent, we're going to be in your face telling you you're delinquent," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "I hope it will have an impact. We need to do everything we can to make sure that a taxpayer is clear on what he or she owes and for what. Tax bills can be confusing."
The supervisors asked for reforms after a Times story detailed how Dotson lost his home. Dotson, who had owned his condominium outright, was left homeless.
The World War II veteran bought his home in December 1995. A few months after the purchase, a tax bill became due. But the bill had been sent to the previous owner.
The county sent Dotson one bill that year notifying him that back taxes were due. Each subsequent year, however, the only notification Dotson received was in the form of a small box printed on the regular tax bill. No amount was given.
In visits to the tax collector's office, Dotson paid his taxes, each time settling the current bill or a portion of it, but never the back taxes. The Los Angeles County treasurer and tax collector gives owners five years to pay a delinquent bill before the property is offered for sale.
An owner can buy more time by paying a delinquent bill before a current bill, or by paying on an extended plan.
Dotson and supporters who came to his aid said no one ever told him this. In February 2002, the county sold his condo to pay the back taxes, interest and penalties.
Even so, four months after the county sold his home, Dotson went into the office to pay taxes and a clerk accepted nearly $1,000 in payment.
Vacie Thomas of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and Reuben Taylor of the Inglewood Police Department spent months trying to help Dotson get his property back.
Thomas and Taylor argued that Dotson's record of paying taxes and the fact that he owned his property outright should have indicated to county staff that he might be an older person and that the system should be revamped to address the needs of older people.
Speaking before the Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday, Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector Mark Saladino outlined several changes, including:
* Each year, homeowners will receive a separate delinquent notice, informing them of back taxes due.
* Homeowners will be encouraged to voluntarily give the county the name of a friend or relative who would be notified before a property is to be auctioned.
* In cases in which the amount is less than 10% of the assessed value, owner-occupied property will not be sold until a representative from the county's Department of Community and Senior Services and the Department of Consumer Affairs meets with the homeowner and advises them of assistance and payment plans available.
* On regular tax bills, a notice of delinquent taxes will be printed in bold against a brightly colored background.
* The payment stub that those who pay in person present to a cashier will also indicate a delinquency, which will alert the cashier that back taxes are due.
Saladino said the reforms will not require additional funding and will be in place before the next tax auction in August.
"We think that with these additional procedures, we would try to reduce the number of people that fall through the cracks, so to speak," he told the board.
Two weeks ago, the supervisors asked the tax collector's office, along with the Department of Community and Senior Services and the Department of Consumer Affairs, to recommend reforms to account for taxpayers like Dotson.
Thomas and Taylor welcomed the new procedures.
"These are much-needed changes," Thomas said. "I commend the tax collector's office for taking a stand."
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes Inglewood, said the face-to-face interviews with homeowners will allow county staff to determine if they need a referral to a social agency, such as adult protective services.
"If you're over 62, you, by state law, can defer taxes until the property is sold or transferred or until you've passed away," Burke said. "A person like Mr. Dotson would have been eligible for that."
The county already includes information regarding deferral in delinquent tax bills, but such information is easy to overlook, she said.
"It's like your gas bills," Burke said. "You just pay it. That's why I think there has to be something really affirmative to happen before they go forward and sell a home for a very small amount, especially ... if they've paid their taxes."
Burke's office has been assisting Dotson, who lives in veterans' housing.
"We are in the process of getting either that condo or another one in the same complex and then he can decide if he wants to go back or not," Burke said. "I think that's the most important thing."