How To Ensure You’re Not Over-Charged on Property Taxes

property taxAs any reader of this column knows, voters will be confronted come election day with billions and billions of new tax hikes and bond measures (which, of course, result in their own tax hikes). But let’s not forget that there is another reason for taxpayer to experience a heightened sense of anxiety over the next few weeks.

For many the real scare this time of year is not the monsters at our doors on Halloween but the property tax bill in the mail box. But, while the “tax and spend” lobby increases its influence in Sacramento, homeowners have still been able to count on Proposition 13 for some degree of protection. Because Proposition 13 limits increases in a property’s assessed value to two percent annually, most property owners have a good idea what their tax bill will be even before opening the envelope. But homeowners still need to examine carefully their property tax bill because mistakes can happen.

Taxpayers should understand the various charges and make certain that they are not being assessed for more than they are legally obligated to pay. The best way to check a tax bill is to have your previous year’s bill handy for reference.

Checking the bill is especially important for those who bought their homes a few years ago at the height of the market. If your home value is actually lower than the assessed value shown on the tax bill, you should consider applying for a reduction in taxes. (Sometimes called a “Prop. 8 reduction”).

For most California counties, the property tax bill will show three categories of charges. They are the General Tax Levy, Voted Indebtedness and Direct Assessments.

General Tax Levy

The General Tax Levy is what most people think of when talking about property taxes. It is based on the assessed value of land, improvements and fixtures. This charge usually makes up the largest part of the tax bill and it is the amount that is limited by Proposition 13.

Proposition 13 passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1978 and it established a statewide uniform tax rate of one percent of assessed value at the time of purchase and limited annual increases in assessed value to no more than two percent. From a practical standpoint, this means that once the base year value of your property is established the General Tax Levy cannot be increased more than two percent each year. This allows all property owners to predict their property tax bills into the future and budget accordingly.

The best way to check to make sure that your current General Levy of Assessment is correct is to compare it with the previous year’s bill. The increase should be no more than two percent unless there have been improvements to the property like adding a room to a house or if you previously received a Prop. 8 “reduction in value.” This bears repeating: Because the real estate market in many parts of California is recovering many homeowners who previously received a temporary reduction in “taxable value” from their assessment may now see an increase in their tax bill more than two percent from last year. But in no case will the taxable value be more than the initial Prop. 13 base year plus two percent annually from the date of purchase. Although that may seem unfair, keep in mind that while the reduction was only temporary, the savings you received when your property was worth less are permanent.

If in doubt about the current value of your property, check sales of comparable homes in your neighborhood. If homes like yours are selling for less than the valuation on your latest bill contact your county assessor and ask that the value and resulting tax be adjusted to reflect true current value.

Voted Indebtedness

Voted Indebtedness charges reflect the repayment cost of bonds approved by the voters. Local general obligation bonds for libraries, parks, police and fire facilities and other capital improvements are repaid exclusively by property owners. Because a minority of the population is required to pay the entire amount, the California Constitution of 1879 established the two-thirds vote for approval of these bonds. This assures a strong community consensus before obligating property owners to repay debt for 20 or 30 years.

Until the year 2000 local school bonds also required a two-thirds vote but the passage of Proposition 39 lowered the vote to 55 percent. (Of course this did very little to improve schools as was promised). Because the 55 percent requirement guarantees that most school bonds will pass regardless of merit many homeowners are seeing a significant increase in the Voted Indebtedness column on their tax bills.

In some counties, parcel taxes may appear under this second category of property exactions even though parcel taxes are rarely used to repay debt. Parcel taxes are taxes on property ownership but are not imposed as a percentage of taxable value. Although there is no upper limit to amount of parcel taxes you have to pay  (HJTA is working to change that) the good news is that under Proposition 13 they still require a two-thirds vote.

Direct Assessments

The third type of levy one finds on the typical property tax bill is for direct assessments for services related to property such as street lighting, regional sanitation, flood control, etc. Because of Proposition 218 — the Right to Vote on Taxes Act placed on the ballot by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in 1996 — property owners must be given a meaningful say in approving new assessments. Before an assessment can be imposed or increased property owners must be informed in writing and be given the opportunity to cast a protest vote on the new assessment or assessment increase.

For more information regarding your property tax bill go to HJTA.org and click on Frequently Asked Questions then scroll down to “About Property Tax Assessments”. If you have a question about your property tax bill you can contact your county assessor, county tax collector or, in many instances, the phone number of the levying agency for each levy that is reflected on your bill. It’s your money and you have a right to be certain that your bill is correct.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Originally published by HJTA.org

Planned Parenthood’s California Counsel

The recent undercover videos of top Planned Parenthood executives discussing how to position and kill unborn babies in order to preserve the marketability of their body parts offer the sort of shocking revelations that typically spur California government officials to action. One might have expected state authorities to examine the substance of the issues raised by the Center for Medical Progress, the group of citizen-journalists who made the videos. Instead, California officials have rallied to Planned Parenthood’s defense.

Democratic legislators blocked a Republican proposal to audit Planned Parenthood’s California operations, which receive more than $200 million a year in reimbursements from Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program. Thirteen legislators had wanted the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to look into whether Planned Parenthood used any of that money to harvest and sell body parts, which is a felony. Senator Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat, said an audit would be too expensive. And besides, Planned Parenthood provides “vital health care” services. They wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, after all.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris urges funds for tracking prescription drugsInaction from a legislature dominated by Democrats is no surprise. Far more troubling has been the response of Attorney General Kamala Harris. Last month, Harris, who is currently the leading Democratic candidate to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate next year, received a letter from several Democratic members of Congress demanding that she—along with U.S. Justice Department officials — investigate the undercover videographers, who posed as buyers for a biotech company that performs medical research. “Press accounts regarding this incident have reported that this group created ‘fake identification’ in order to falsely impersonate corporate executives and ‘gain access’ to meetings with Planned Parenthood officials,” the letter states. It points to reports suggesting the group “filed paperwork to create a fake corporate entity.” The lawmakers also allege the undercover videos “may implicate California’s Invasion of Privacy Act, which prohibits recording individuals without their consent.” A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on August 21 ruled against that claim, but Harris appears undaunted. She immediately agreed to investigate the investigators, and brushed aside a letter from Republican state legislators asking her to look at whether Planned Parenthood violated any laws. As with the legislature’s Democrats, such questions hold no interest for the attorney general.

Harris’s tenure as attorney general already is an instructive lesson in what happens when a partisan takes over an important constitutional office and seems to put the demands of her political supporters above any pretense of even-handed justice. California attorneys general give the titles and summary of proposed statewide initiatives, and such short explanations are typically all that voters ever read about the measures before casting their votes. Harris has been so biased in crafting these titles and summaries that she was criticized harshly by some of the state’s most liberal newspapers, such as the Sacramento Bee. In particular, she gave a summary to a pension-reform measure that sounded as if its union opponents crafted it.

Harris currently is mired in a dispute with the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation. She has demanded the nonprofit educational group’s donor lists in exchange for allowing it to operate in California. AFP officials are understandably concerned about letting Harris and her political allies get their hands on such sensitive information. As KQED reported, “After two gay couples sued to overturn Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage in California, the attorney general (like her predecessor Jerry Brown) refused to defend it in court. That, along with Harris’ argument that Prop. 8’s proponents didn’t have legal standing to defend it either, infuriated conservative groups.” Typically, state officials are charged with defending initiatives passed by the voters, but Harris again behaved as a partisan. Regardless of where one stood on the question of Prop. 8’s constitutionality or its political wisdom, Harris’s effort to undermine any defense of the measure set a troubling precedent.

Harris’s probe into the Center for Medical Progress could spell trouble for investigative journalism in general, not just these investigative journalists. Undercover efforts to expose wrongdoing are a long-running TV news tradition. Do we really want to prosecute undercover reporters for not getting their targets’ permission to record questionable conduct and misdeeds?

A fair-minded attorney general would look at all the entangling legal questions involving Planned Parenthood and the people who exposed its officials’ questionable behavior. Instead, we have the Golden State’s top law-enforcement official behaving as if she were Planned Parenthood’s California counsel. Harris’s brand of partisan “justice” may be less disgusting than Planned Parenthood officials talking about a fully formed fetus’s “crunchy” parts, but it’s disgusting just the same.

CA’s Remarkable and Powerful Gay and Lesbian Political Leadership – What is Next From Them?

For some years Californian’s have given gay and lesbian politicians extraordinary leadership opportunities and power in the state. The power these politicians possess in state government is from stronger positions and relatively larger numbers than that of many other minority groups, including Asian elected officials, in a state where Asians comprise 14% of the population, and they arguably possess more political power than African-American politicians, whose affinity group represents close to 7% of the state population. California’s gay and lesbian elected officials have wielded this power even as those same California voters disapproved gay marriage at the ballot, as in 2008, when just over 52% of voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage.  (The same voters gave Barack Obama over 61% of their votes in the same election.) But times are changing, and California’s highly influential gay and lesbian elected officials, who have been so successful on civil rights issues for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and have worked so hard on issues like same-sex marriage, have surely played a role in the remarkable changes in California public opinion since 2008.  According to a September 2013 Public Policy Institute of California poll (taken well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision approving same sex marriage as a Constitutional right), a record high 61% of Californians and 64% of likely voters favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, and in apparent remorse for the 2008 vote on Proposition 8, solid majorities of Californians (59%) and likely voters (63%) approved of the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier decision to let stand a lower court ruling that put a “stay” on Proposition 8′s ban on same-sex marriage in California. One might guess that public opinion in California in favor of same-sex marriage is even more popular today than in PPIC’s last survey.

Who are these notably powerful gay and lesbian leaders? They are almost all liberal Democrats, and have served in responsible leadership positions (some retired only because of term limits) in the last decade and include current Assembly Speaker (the state assembly’s most important position) Toni Atkins of San Diego, the state’s first out lesbian Speaker, and her immediate predecessor John Perez of Los Angeles, the state’s first out gay Assembly Speaker.  Included also are former State Senator Sheila Kuehl from Santa Monica, now serving in the significant position of Los Angeles County Supervisor, current State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco, the State Senate’s first out gay State Senator and a possible successor for Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional seat,  former State Senator Carole Migden of San Francisco, along with retired State Senator Christine Kehoe of San Diego and retired Assembly member Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles. Congressman Mark Takano of Riverside is an out gay, as is San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts. They are all Democrats and are joined by many more gay and lesbian elected officials throughout the state in other state and local offices.

A few influential gay and lesbian elected officials are Republicans, and they are generally representing southern California constituencies.  Bonnie Dumanis, holding the important office of District Attorney of San Diego County, is a lesbian and a Republican. But Republican gay and lesbian candidates have been less successful at the ballot box than their liberal Democrats counterparts. Carl DeMaio was elected to the San Diego City Council, but he lost close races for Mayor of San Diego and the 52nd Congressional seat to straight Democrats. Kevin James lost his race for Mayor of Los Angeles in 2013, but was appointed after the election to the powerful Public Works Commission. Some gay Republican elected officials have not been “out” about themselves.  In at least one example, former GOP State Senator Ray Ashburn was considered in a published account as a “fierce opponent of gay rights” until he was arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay nightclub in Sacramento one night, leading to his coming “out” as a gay man. Ashburn’s term ended in the State Senate in 2010 and he lost a shot at a political comeback when he ran for Kern County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and lost. (He had previously served 12 years as a supervisor, before his election to the state Legislature.)

California’s powerful liberal Democratic gay and lesbian elected leaders of course can’t claim credit for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, but the result is something they have doggedly and passionately worked on for many years. It is a huge goal to be considered now accomplished. So the question is, what will they do with their formidable power now?

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci asked more-or-less that question in a recent article. She quotes Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, as saying there is growing concern that “we see people coming out of religious communities being very threatened by the advances we made, and we really need to work on that.”  “Here in California,” he said, “we’re still seeing continued attacks by the religious right on the transgender community, and ballot measures by the same right-wing extremists who brought us Prop. 8.”

Zbur’s rhetoric may also be a growing concern. If it was “right-wing” extremists who brought about Proposition 8, they were supported by 52% of the state, the same state that elected Obama in a landslide in the same election.  There should not be growing concerns on the part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community given the changes we have seen in California and society in general since 2008. As I said earlier, polling shows a markedly different attitude today among Californians on the issue of same-sex marriage than just seven years ago, and those changes in voter attitudes aren’t just about changes in demographics. They have a lot to do with political leadership in the state. In my opinion, the growing concern for the state is not about what right-wing extremists are going to do, rather, it is about how far California’s supporters of LGBT rights are going to push their advantage into the new realm that will pit personal property rights against discrimination claims in the state.

Housing, employment, insurance, renting, leasing, buying, selling, personal service agreements; all these activities involve personal property rights protected by many of the same parts of the constitution as same-sex marriage now is protected.  It is these activities that will likely become the focus of new state legislative proposals intent on building on the U.S. Supreme Court case and this is where the coming tension between constitutional interests will be at the most important. The constitutionally protected right to privacy will also be an issue, as in efforts by opponents of the so-called “transgender” bathroom legislation adopted by the state in 2013. It will be interesting to see how Californians react in polls and voting on an initiative measure pitting personal privacy rights in a bathroom against the right of a transgender person to self-identify.  But let us be clear: privacy, rightly or wrongly, is not a constitutional right that has held much of a trump card with the U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades, as in The Patriot Act decisions. However, personal property rights have indeed mattered to a continuing majority of the modern court, and California’s gay and lesbian leaders should be very careful about how they play their current winning hand, because pushing too hard might just be seen as an attempt not to address a civil right, but to achieve a favoritism in law, and that could easily become a 5-4 losing hand.

Originally published by the Flashreport