That old saw about the certainty of death and taxes holds true for property owners—but everyone else gets a little more leeway in paying the government’s cut.
Yes, the pandemic prompted the federal government to give us a grace period on income taxes while the California Franchise Tax Board pushed its own filing deadline for individuals and businesses to July 15. But there’s a little less leeway for property taxes.
Santa Clara County’s due date for property taxes is what it is. And it’s still April 10.
That’s not because our local tax collectors are unsympathetic. According to officials who spoke with us about the looming deadline, they just can’t do a damn thing about it.
County Assessor Larry Stone—whose office doesn’t collect taxes but does assay property values to determine what people owe—explained how the mid-April date is enshrined in a state statute that local governments lack the power to change.
“There’s no local discretion,” he says. “So, everybody must pay their taxes by April 10. The only thing that can alter it, I imagine, is action by the legislature.”
With the deadline fast approaching, of course, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s not ideal, but there might be a way around this. Just pay what you can—or nothing at all—and let the county figure out a way to waive the late fees.
Stone says he’s more worried about another deadline. His office has until July 1 to close the assessment roll, which generates $5 billion in property taxes for the county, public schools, special districts and a host of other local government agencies.
“If we don’t get the roll closed with accurate values,” he says, “then the tax bills don’t go out and people don’t pay the bill they don’t receive.”
But the stay-at-home order has emptied out his office, which went from 260 people to just 20 this past week. Though he’s 79 and would work from home if he heeded Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directive for people 65 and up, Stone says he has no choice but to run toward the chaos, which couldn’t have come at a worse possible time.
“Our crunch time is from the middle of March to the middle of June,” he says in a recent phone interview. “That’s when everything happens in my office. That’s why for years we’ve delayed vacations during that timeframe. Everything rests on this, $5 billion rests on us closing the roll by July 1.”
The staffing diaspora has turned things into a “logistical nightmare without any preparation building up to the logistical nightmare,” Stone says. It’ll take a week or two to supply, secure and configure 166 new laptops for employees now working remotely. Instead of hammering away at the constitutionally mandated priorities as assessor, he’s spending three hours a day on conference calls dealing with personnel issues.
Because of his age, which makes him especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, Stone’s holed up in his office. Like everyone else still working from the county building on San Jose’s Hedding Street, he’s avoiding a vacant workstation where one of his appraisers came down with a 103-degree fever at the start of last week and has since been under quarantine awaiting testing.
“He’s doing OK, but we don’t even know yet what kind of sickness he had,” Stone says. “Now I’m having all the folks he was close to in the real property division wondering whether they were exposed or not and having the janitorial service come in and deep clean his cubicle because nobody wants to go near it.”
While this shakeup is unprecedented in many ways, Stone sees some comparison to the madness that ensued during the Great Recession. When property values suddenly tanked in the late aughts, Stone says it prompted a three-to-fourfold increase in appeals, which forced him to shift resources from the more lucrative work of enrolling new construction and changes of ownership to auditing disputed assessments.
“That’s similar to what we’re doing now,” he adds. “We have to shift resources.”
Hard times have befallen the county before, and Stone anticipates this crisis following a similar trajectory to the one in 2009.
“There’s a real connection between the economy, which is going south at the moment, and government revenue, whether that’s income tax or property tax,” he says. “We’ve been through this before. When the government needs the most money, it’s when things are not going well in the economy and taxpayers’ ability to pay is diminished.”
Stone’s used to worrying, having steered his unit through the best of times and the worst.
“This,” he says, “this is a different type of worry.”