Grand jury wants tax bill details

When a county homeowner receives a property tax bill, the document does not say in any detail where the tax dollars are going. The county civil grand jury would like to change that.

Top county fiscal administrators are open to the change, but are not sure whether those same taxpayers would be willing to foot the bill to pay for the added staffing and updated technology that they say they believe would be needed.

The grand jury raised the question last week in a report titled “Your property tax bill: The devil is in the details — but there are no details.”

“The typical … county property tax bill tells us almost nothing about which agencies get our cash or how much each receives,” the grand jury wrote.

As they investigated, the grand jury said it learned that 90 distinct government agencies receive some or all of their financial support from property taxes collected from within the county’s 407 tax-rate areas.

It also learned that the current general breakdown for disbursements is: school districts, 46 percent; the county government’s general fund, 30 percent; incorporated cities, 12 percent; Cuesta College and special districts, 4 percent each; and redevelopment agencies spread throughout the county, 3 percent.

Grand jurors spoke with County Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach and Tax Collector-Treasurer Frank Freitas.

“Both suggested that calculating the specific dollar amount that each taxpayer pays to each agency and printing that information on our individual tax bill might be both burdensome and costly,” grand jurors wrote. “The grand jury does not accept their arguments.”

They said that using existing data, “it should not be difficult to compute where our individual tax payments are disbursed.”

There is room on tax bills for the information and, at a minimum, those bills “should provide a good-faith estimate of how much goes to support at least the six government agencies that receive the largest share thereof.”

In separate e-mails to The Tribune, Sibbach and Freitas said they are working on formal responses to the grand jury report, which they must provide by Sept. 7.

“I always take grand jury comments very seriously,” Sibbach wrote, “and want to use a little time to think things through and brainstorm on what can be done to meet their request in a reasonable and cost-effective way.”

He said he will coordinate this response with Freitas.

Freitas, who stressed that his comments are preliminary and based on “a quick review,” wrote that “We can provide this information, but the question is: Would this be the best use of very limited resources?

“We have a group of 24-plus-year-old tax programs that have the data, but I believe it would take a significant effort to build the program to generate this information.

“It would also take at least one additional page to get the data on a bill. The data would be relatively useless, as the distribution is very complicated and every taxpayer pays something in to every taxing agency in the county.

“If we decided to do this,” Freitas continued, “it would have to compete for resources with other needed software updates. I doubt that it would get to the top of the list at any time soon.”

Freitas added that in his 35 years in the Tax Collector’s Office, “No one has ever asked for this information.”

Nonetheless, he wrote that he and Sibbach are “looking at alternatives that would provide the information in some other format for those taxpayers who may be interested. I would support that if the resources to do it don’t take away from other updates that are more important and/or are required by statute.”