As a retired school employee, Marcella Murray understands the need for parcel taxes to support the county's cash-strapped school districts. As a senior, however, the San Anselmo resident doesn't expect to have to pay them.
So Murray was shocked to open her most recent property tax bill and find a $286 charge from the Ross Valley School District added to her assessment.
"For the last 14 years, my husband and I have been exempt from paying Ross Valley school parcel taxes as seniors," Murray said. "The district said it was an error, and they gave me a form to reapply - even though we'd been told we'd never have to apply again. I started phoning my friends and neighbors in both San Anselmo and Fairfax. Out of the 10 I phoned, five had had the tax re-added to their bill."
Problems with property tax bills, which are due Nov. 1 - and delinquent after Dec. 10 - are nothing new.
With a handful of school officials processing mountains of paperwork - in Novato, a single worker processes tax information for all 20,780 parcels, including 9,279 senior exemptions - a few mistakes are inevitable, said Kathleen Clow, chief business official for the Ross Valley School District.
"Sometimes something somewhere happens," Clow said. "The code doesn't get in there. The form gets left blank. We don't know if a person is legitimately exempt. There's a lot of paperwork to process. And from the district's perspective, we want to collect every possible revenue, so we prefer to err on the side of the parcel tax."
This year, however, many seniors already hard-hit by the recession are taking a closer look at their tax bills - and finding themselves overwhelmed by a dizzying array of parcel taxes and bond issues.
"This is a year that's hard for everybody," said Christina Clem, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons of California. "Schools have been hit hard, and parcel taxes are one of the ways we fund our schools. At the same time, people who are of retirement age may have just lost a significant portion of the retirement, and they may not have the ability to work and recoup that retirement income. That's why AARP says parcel taxes should only be used if they're the only way to make money, because they really do tend to hit people who have a lower income harder."
Every school district in Marin that has a parcel tax makes an exception for those over 65 whose primary residence is within the district. But it's up to those seniors to let the school district know who they are, and it's up to the district to provide an updated list of exemptions to the county assessor's and tax collector's offices. Sometimes, communication breaks down.
In Novato, school officials went door-to-door during June's campaign for a district parcel tax to let seniors know about the exemption, and sent a letter of explanation to each resident, said administrative assistant Cyndee Cannon. Even so, many seniors remained uninformed.
"People could have moved in after the letter was sent, or maybe they didn't understand what the letter was. A lot of times, people will see something political in the mail and immediately it goes into the round file," said Cannon, an assistant to the district's chief of financial operations. "We get whole sections of town sometimes where one person on the block finds out about the exemption and tells their neighbors, and we get a flood of phone calls."
That's what happened to San Anselmo resident Edward Briggs. The retired lawyer heard about the exemption from his neighbor and discovered he'd been paying parcel taxes to both the Ross Valley and Tamalpais Union school districts for several years despite being exempt from both. Briggs was frustrated to discover he couldn't get a refund on past years' tax payments - and even more frustrated when he finally applied for an exemption.
"You have to get the form, and then once you sign it they demand a copy of your license," Briggs said. "Then because my license says my address is a P.O. box, I had to get my utility bill. They're making people jump through hoops, even when we're qualified for the exemption."
District and county officials acknowledge that the process can be confusing. In addition, many taxpayers find it difficult to distinguish between district parcel taxes - which allow for senior exemptions - and bond issues, which do not.
"Most of the calls we get are people who are confused because they're seeing school bonds when they open up their bill," said Roy Given, assistant treasurer-tax collector for Marin County. "They think they're entitled to an exemption, and there is none."
Finding information about the bills isn't easy. Both AARP and Whistlestop, an agency of the Marin Senior Coordinating Council, provide free tax information during income tax season, but neither service is available to discuss fall property taxes. In addition, neither the tax collector's office nor the county assessor's office is familiar with the nuances of every district's tax.
"Schools are just one of many" items on the tax bill, said Kathy Rael of the assessor's office. "There's fire, paramedics, sanitary districts and all kinds of abatements. We bill 92,000 parcels every year. With all of the districts in our charge, we can't possibly know in detail how they are levied."
That leaves the school districts. District officials say they're happy to discuss exemptions and work out problems with residents - even if it sometimes requires the time and patience of both parties.
"The exemption form takes six to eight weeks to process, and once it's gone through us, it goes through the county, which takes another six to eight weeks," said Cannon, who urged residents who felt they were due an exemption not to wait to pay their taxes. "If they're exempt, the county will give them a credit for the parcel tax that can be applied to their next installment."
Briggs, who is awaiting his exemption, believes the process is more complicated - and frustrating - than it needs to be.
"It's clear that if you're over 65 and your property is your principal place of residence, you're entitled to an exemption," Briggs said. "But these folks are making it as difficult as they can (to get the exemption) because they want the money. If that's the way it is, it makes me not want to vote for any school tax."
PAYING YOUR DUES
First tax installment due: Nov. 1
First installment delinquent if not paid by: Dec. 10
Second tax installment due: Feb. 1
Second installment delinquent if not paid by: April 12
Source: Marin County Assessor's Office
Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org