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Sonoma County fire-damaged property tax adjustments to begin

Cal Fire firefighters Lisa Harris, left, and Nelson Alvarado access damage to a home at 1000 Wikiup Drive in Larkfield-Wikiup, on Sunday, October 15, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

KEVIN FIXLER,

The Sonoma County Assessor’s Office is sending staff out into the field this week to inspect fire-damaged properties in more isolated sections of Santa Rosa and unincorporated areas to complete property tax bill adjustments.

Based on information and photos provided by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire and the county’s permit and resource management department, the assessor has a sufficient handle on those homes completely destroyed by the wildfires that began racing through the community the second week of October. It’s those dwellings off the beaten path — locations like Mark West Springs Road and rural land of the Rincon Valley — that require separate visits and case-by-case study.

“Total damage is pretty easy to see with aerial photography and (geographic information system) software,” said William Rousseau, the county’s clerk-recorder-assessor. “This is so we can get to the hard-to-get-to properties, maybe on private roads.”

The Assessor’s Office has a recorded message on its general phone line stating homeowners of affected properties do not need to fill out the standard damage-by-misfortune or calamity applications or make any formal reassessment requests. Large-scale reductions got underway shortly after authorities were able to get the regional fires contained.

Per state law, the county collects property taxes and distributes those monies to fund a number of municipal services, from public safety and fiscal duties to general governmental administration. The specific recipients of those dollars include Sonoma County and its nine incorporated cities, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, more than 40 school districts and 70-plus special districts such as fire, sanitation and flood control.

A provision in the state’s revenue and taxation code, though, states that if damage from disasters like fire, earthquakes or floods occurs, homeowners may be eligible for property tax relief. The loss estimate must be at least $10,000 of current market value to qualify for a reduction, and the property will be reassessed according to its existing state and the tax adjusted accordingly.

For now it’s a matter of allowing appraisers, who will be out in teams of two, the necessary time to finish their fieldwork on what Rousseau approximated is fewer than 100 remaining homes with unique circumstances. He said his office hopes to have the additional review completed in the next 10 to 14 days.

After a resident reported someone illegally posing as a county appraiser to the assessor’s office, Sonoma’s joint information center issued a press release last week to make sure citizens are able to more easily identify official government employees. These tandems will be in marked County of Sonoma vehicles and also carry official badges. Anyone spotting others claiming to be appraising properties on behalf of the county should contact the Sheriff’s Office or Santa Rosa Police Department.

The size of the financial hit to the county’s coffers is not entirely clear. The state’s insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, said last week the North Coast fires account for more than $3 billion in insured loss, which makes them the costliest wildfires in U.S. history.

What is known about how that will correspond with decreases to the county budget — whether it really strikes a blow this year or not until tax year 2018-19 — is there will be some degree of negative effect.

“Absent a reasonable estimate, it’s really difficult to say what the impacts will be,” said Erick Roeser, the county’s auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector. “The tax allocation process is just so complicated here. We’re sharing with districts as we learn more to prepare for budgetary impacts for years to come.”

That property tax relief is available to the owners of real property, business equipment and fixtures, as well as agricultural and orchard groves, in addition to owners of aircraft, boats and mobile homes already converted to the tax roll, according to the county’s website dedicated to wildfire recovery. Reductions are not offered for property that cannot be assessed, such as household furnishings or mobile housing units still overseen by state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Residents who sustained total loss or damage to a state-licensed mobile home should contact that agency at 916-263-5431 or at contactrt@hcd.ca.gov.

Once the Assessor’s Office has concluded its work, the data will be inputted and eventually made available to the office of the county’s tax collector. From there, corrected tax bills will be sent out to residents within roughly two weeks’ time, and that office can begin the formal analysis on the size of expected holes in the budgets of local public services, special districts and the school system.

“Reductions of any magnitude will have some impact,” said Roeser. “But, hypothetically speaking, 5 or 10 percent to the total tax roll may not be as significant as one would think. Determining the magnitude, we really won’t know until we get the numbers.”

Affected homeowners are encouraged to call the assessor for more information regarding the reassessment process, at 707-565-1888.

The Assessor’s Office was also under mandatory evacuation during the recent wildfires, but has now resumed normal operations and is working to assist residents.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.