Ratcheted Up Rhetoric Over Business Tax Collections

If you're looking for good political theatre, head over to the Orange County Assessor's office where there's an all-points-bulletin out on missing tax collections that OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino alleged last week has cost taxpayers up to $125 million over the last 27 years.

Assessor Webster Guillory has his staff digging into records and says they aren't finding evidence of uncollected possessory interest taxes, which are taxes levied on businesses that use government property.

Guillory, who faces re-election in June, is telling Berardino to be more specific with the allegations he put in play Tuesday during the public comment period of the county supervisors' weekly meeting.

"Show us or tell us," Guillory said. "[Berardino] is calling into question the professionalism of the people who work here. The professional staff here is not happy."

Berardino's answer: "Lets go through them all -- lets have an independent third party look at it."

At issue is a supplemental tax that under state law is supposed to be imposed on any property that changes hands or has new construction in the midst of a taxable year. Employees say despite internal and official warnings from the State Board of Equalization, Guillory has avoided imposing the tax for fear of upsetting big business interests.

"Nobody complains about a tax bill they never receive," goes the historic saying inside assessor office circles, Berardino said.

There are two roles where such business interests are taxed, the secured and un-secured roles. While state officials acknowledge that supplemental tax bills go out on secured property, they have criticized Orange County officials for failing to send out supplemental bills for properties on the unsecured roles.

Guillory says that distinction only covers cable companies and there haven't been any taxable transactions since the 2006 state audit report that criticized his office.

And that 2006 audit concluded supplemental tax bills weren't being sent out?

"They couldn't show it," Guillory said noting that the audit was only talking about potential situations. "They never told me I was losing anything."

Yet when I reminded Guillory that's not what his official response was at the time (the department said it concurred and would fix the glitch), his response was more nuanced.

"We're working on that," Guillory said adding that he started to work on the fix in 2007. "It's part of the new system development."

He's referring to the long-awaited new computer assessment system that county assessor employees say is over-budget and over-promised. County supervisors also have held past hearings on the computer system, expressing similar cost and timing fears.

While figuring out whether the assessors' computer upgrade is a good or bad idea has been complicated, the search for the missing tax should prove simpler.

This week, the county's internal audit department should get started on looking into things, after being ordered to do so by county supervisors last week.

Voice of OC will also take a look. We'll be submitting a public records request this week for a list of all real properties on the assessor's unsecured roll that are subject to possessory interest taxes and either changed hands or had new construction between 2006 and 2010.

We'll also ask for a list of every possessory interest tax interest across the county to see if it's just cable companies.

-- NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

 

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