The second installment of the 2019-2020 property tax bill was due on Friday and we hope the majority of California’s property owners were able to pay it without economic hardship. Unfortunately, for many homeowners and small businesses, it was more than just a hardship. They simply didn’t have the cash, and now they’re considered delinquent.
For this regrettable state of affairs we can thank both state and local officials. Gov. Gavin Newsom had the authority to issue an executive order to delay the deadline or direct counties to waive penalties and interest but, after pressure from local government associations, he declined to do so.
The California Association of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors admits that its members have the discretion to waive penalties and interest for late payment of property taxes. But whether they will do so will be determined only on a “case-by-case” basis.
In Orange County, Tax Collector Shari L. Freidenrich told the Los Angeles Times, “We will be closely reviewing each request on a case-by-case basis that we receive from homeowners, small businesses and other property owners who have significant demonstrated economic hardship due to COVID-19.”
What constitutes “significant demonstrated economic hardship” is anyone’s guess, because the term is not actually defined in California law.
It would be extremely helpful if the Legislature retroactively waives fines and penalties for those who have lost jobs and wages due to the coronavirus. But in the meantime, because local officials have not acted, property owners are left in limbo at a time when they need clarity and predictability.
Sadly, property owners are subject to the whims of their county’s treasurer-tax collector, whose policy on late payments may be much different from that applied by tax officials in other counties even though they are permitted by statute to provide relief.
Some county treasurer-tax collectors have effectively extended the deadline by simply closing their offices. Under the law, if the office is closed, the deadline for payment of taxes is the next business day that the office is open.
San Francisco County Treasurer-Tax Collector José Cisneros has extended the tax payment deadline by closing the TTC office through May 1. San Mateo County Treasurer-Tax Collector Sandie Arnott has also pushed the tax payment due date to May 4. There is no small amount of irony that two progressive counties have stepped up to the plate for taxpayers while counties that are perceived as pro-taxpayers have been recalcitrant.
Treasurer-tax collectors who kept their offices open may have missed their chance to follow the lead of San Mateo and San Francisco counties. But they are not too late to waive penalties and interest for property tax payments made after the April 10 deadline by Californians who have suffered from the unforeseeable economic damage caused by the statewide lockdown.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has created a resource available to the public that provides the contact information for treasurer-tax collectors in all 58 counties. Taxpayers who need assistance or have questions are encouraged to visit www.hjta.org and click on the banner at the top of the homepage.
Almost all treasurer-tax collectors in California are elected by the voters. We suspect voters will reward those officials who demonstrate flexibility in these unprecedented circumstances. Those who don’t shouldn’t expect a lot of sympathy if they pay a political price in their next election.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.