‘Not my responsibility’ is the answer I get wherever I turn. When a government agency incorrectly collects taxes, why will no one accept responsibility?” said Kathy Casey, as she peered through black-rimmed glasses at the management committee of downtown’s Property and Business Improvement District during its February 23 meeting.
Formed in 2000, the Property and Business Improvement District, branded as the Clean and Safe Program, is managed by the Downtown San Diego Partnership. The program provides downtown neighborhoods such services as graffiti abatement, sidewalk maintenance, and patrolling “safety ambassadors” on Segways. The district is funded with property assessments.
Casey is a spry, slender woman who’s in her 60s. She lives in the Cortez neighborhood. According to Casey, a City consultant miscalculated the assessments for approximately 2400 downtown residents over a four-year period. As a result, she estimates that the Clean and Safe Program has received $260,000 more than it should have from property owners. Of those 2400 people, most are unaware of the blunder. The few who do know are troubled that nobody from the City, their councilman’s office, or the Downtown San Diego Partnership has done anything to alert the citizens and refund their money.
As Casey spoke, Bill Sauls, who sat with his fellow committee members at a dark mahogany table in the plush B Street offices of Downtown San Diego Partnership, closed his eyes and leaned back in his beige leather chair.
After Casey finished her statement, Sauls responded, “When we were first made aware of this, we contacted the City to investigate the situation and report back to us what the status was and what the solutions are. At this point we’re still waiting.”
Casey knows all about waiting. She’s sick of waiting, and she’s sick of the City’s inaction. She says it’s not the $133 she’s owed that upsets her; it’s the unethical way City officials have handled the matter.
The problem started in 2005, when downtown residents voted to continue the Clean and Safe Program another ten years. At that time, the City hired a new consultant, SCI Consulting Group, whose job included determining property assessments. Assessments are based on both the property’s square footage and its linear feet of street frontage. In calculating the fees for property owners in new buildings — those being assessed for the first time — SCI used a different method than had been used in prior years. Instead of using a formula that seems to have involved dividing the entire square footage of a building by the number of units, as had been done in the past, SCI used the parcel size — the actual square footage of each condo. People in older buildings continued to be assessed according to the old calculation. This meant that in the older buildings, most property owners paid the same assessment regardless of the actual square footage of their condos, e.g., the owner of a 1100-square-foot parcel paid just as much as the owner of a 1900-square-foot parcel in the same building. In addition, people in the older buildings were assessed for the common areas, while people in the new buildings were not. Downtown dwellers in older buildings paid anywhere from $32 to $500 more per year than people with same-sized condos in the new buildings.
Sitting on an antique sofa in a modern citrine-colored townhouse in the Cortez neighborhood, Katherine DiFrancesca, a middle-aged woman dressed in a black business suit and wearing a designer scarf, says she paid $507.48 extra per year for four consecutive years. The mistake was due to more than just the calculation method.
DiFrancesca learned of the error back in June 2009 after talking with her friend and neighbor Rita Collier. Collier suggested she take a look at the assessment roll and make sure the square footage on her townhouse was accurate. It wasn’t. The City listed DiFrancesca’s condominium at 12,412 square feet. The actual square footage is just over 2000.
Looking back, DiFrancesca says she never thought to question the amount listed on the tax bill. “I just paid the bills because I figured that it was right. There was never any explanation on the bill. But apparently somebody got the numbers wrong — they transposed numbers or got distracted, who knows.”
Casey, Collier, and DiFrancesca wrote to the mayor’s office and to their councilmember, Kevin Faulconer. They also emailed and phoned Luis Ojeda, a program manager in the City Planning and Community Investment Department, to inform him of the errors. The women never expected that the email exchange between themselves and Ojeda would go on for over seven months.
Ojeda’s first response came in a June 17 email: “I already have assurances that this issue has been corrected for 2009–10 and we will also correct the previous years if they were incorrectly assessed. Typically under this type of circumstance we either issue a refund check to the property owners or apply a credit towards the following assessment year. I will also try to ensure that the other property owners need not file an appeal as we will work making any corrections.”
Casey was pleased to hear that future assessments would be correct and that Ojeda had met with Mayor Sanders and Faulconer. She took Ojeda at his word that the City would issue refunds, and she assumed the City would notify all 2400 residents.
Casey volunteered to work on behalf of everyone in her building. She spent nearly 15 hours a week scrolling through the assessment rolls to see how many of her neighbors had been incorrectly assessed. After she determined that 38 units in her 54-unit building had been affected, Casey searched the entire district, arriving at the estimate of 2400 owners.
Months passed, and there was no word from Ojeda. On September 4, 2009, Casey sent him another email. “I am concerned that I haven’t been told how the refunds are to be made for the incorrect assessments. In June, you stated that either there would be a credit on the following assessment year or a refund check would be issued.”
Two and a half weeks later, Ojeda replied. “We are working with the comptroller’s office on issuing refunds. We will submit refund checks to the owners in your unit.”
He added that the City would refund overcharges for only the previous year, not for all four years when the inequity occurred.
Casey responded: “Your offer to refund for only one year to only the property owners who filed an appeal is not acceptable. I will continue to pursue this for all the taxpayers that were incorrectly assessed.”
Another two months went by, and Casey hadn’t heard back from Ojeda. At the November Property and Business Improvement District meeting, Ojeda informed Casey that Adam Wander at the city attorney’s office was handling the matter. Casey contacted Wander on December 10, and he informed her that attorney-client privilege prevented him from discussing the overcharge with her.
Casey went back to her computer, and on January 4 she typed in Ojeda’s familiar email address. “It has now been over six months since you met with Councilman Faulconer and Mayor Sanders. Why haven’t the affected citizens been notified of the incorrect charges? Continuing to hide this error does not give me any confidence in the ethics of city government.”
Two weeks later, Ojeda emailed Casey, instructing her to file a form with the Office of Risk Management. He included the form for Casey to download.
“The form is totally inappropriate,” Casey told me on January 30, two days before she submitted it. “It’s for damage to persons and property. It asks for Social Security number, the date of the accident, and witnesses. It’s not the right form, and it is starting to seem like the City is trying to hide this from the public.”
Casey and her friend Carol Marino, who was also overcharged on her assessment, delivered their completed forms on February 1 to the Office of Risk Management, located in the Civic Center complex.
Tony Manolatos, spokesperson for Councilmember Faulconer, was confident in a February 6 phone interview that this was the course to take. “[Councilmember Faulconer] has met with city staff, and he has been assured that everyone overcharged will be reimbursed. We are directing folks to file a claim with Risk Management.”
The reason Faulconer had not informed his constituents of the problem, Manolatos said, was that “We don’t have a list of names of folks that have been overcharged, and there is no list we can grab and use as a mailer. If there was we would certainly do that.”
When asked why Faulconer’s office didn’t notify everyone in the Property and Business Improvement District of the error so people could check the assessment roll themselves to see if they were overcharged, Manolatos replied, “Yeah, I suppose you could go that route.”
The response from John Hanley, executive director of Clean and Safe, wasn’t much different. In a February 8 email, Hanley said it is the City, not the Property and Business Improvement District, that is responsible for the mistake. “When this issue was brought to our attention, we immediately contacted the City to have them address this issue. The City is responsible for the assessment process.”
Additional calls placed to Hanley asking why the Downtown San Diego Partnership had failed to notify residents of the problem were not returned. Phone calls and emails to Ojeda were not returned.
On February 18, Casey received a letter from the Office of Risk Management stating that her claim had been denied. “Because the claim was not presented within the time allowed by law, no action was taken on the claim,” read the letter.
Casey and DiFrancesca filed appeals.
On April 8, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith informed Casey that her claim had been forwarded to SCI’s insurance carrier. Goldsmith concluded his letter by saying, “We apologize for the lengthy process and trust SCI’s insurance carrier will be responding to you, and to the City, soon.”
“The City is very important to me,” DiFrancesca says, “and when you treat your citizens this way, people lose trust. When you see the City operating like you don’t exist and nobody calls you back, it’s really disturbing.
“When I make a mistake and overpay on my federal or state taxes, they contact me and say, ‘Here’s a check.’ You would expect that governments always refund what you overpay. It’s a matter of ethics and morality.”