State

Merced County assessor audit shows property value freefall

MERCED — The assessor has become the assessed.

Merced County's Assessor-Recorder, Kent Christensen, was audited this year by the State Board of Equalization, a routine review to make sure California's county assessors run their offices properly.

A 53-page survey of the assessor's office turned up three areas of suggested improvement and a slew of data about Merced County dwellings, churches and even taxable animals (of which there are "very few").

The report confirms that the total value of property in Merced County for 2007-08 was $20.2 billion; 89,504 properties are included in that figure.

The report also shows that the number of appeals from home and business owners has stayed about the same for the last several years, hovering around the 200-mark. The majority of appeals involved commercial, industrial and rural properties, according to the document.

The review committee recommended three changes to Christensen in the report. The first two recommendations — to correct information on one filing document and to begin evaluating homes on agricultural preserves just as though they were standard residences — were agreed to by Christensen in a written response.

The committee's third recommendation — that a concessionaire at Merced College shouldn't be taxed because his operation is school-based — is an area of disagreement.

Because the concession stand also serves nonschool groups on campus through a catering function, Christensen believes it isn't a tax-exempt educational body.

More facts from the report: For 2007-08, there were 948 low-value properties in Merced County that weren't assessed because the cost of the work would have outweighed the tax income. The total value of these unassessed properties was $584,643, or an average of $616.

Churches and property used exclusively for worship are exempt from property tax assessment. On the 2007-2008 roll, there were 90 churches and 137 religious institutions in Merced County. Their total value was $99.5 million. Hospitals, religious and charitable organizations may also be eligible for an exemption.

Those 175 properties had a total value of $227,068,500.

Disabled veterans, 302 of them, received a $100,000 to $150,000 exemption from their property tax bills in 2007-08.

That year, 2,081 new construction permits were issued.

The report also captured the start of Merced County's economic freefall. In 2006-07, 247 properties in the county lost value. That number skyrocketed to 5,999 in 2007-08.

The 296 privately owned aircraft in Merced County were worth $30 million. Fifteen historical airplanes were valued at $920,960.

The State Board of Equalization completes such reviews of assessors' offices every five years. The purpose is to remove subjective judgment from the assessing process and protect state revenues, which must be paid to schools if improper assessments yield property values too low to cover basic costs.

A final copy of the Merced County Assessment Practices Survey was sent to the governor, attorney general, Legislature, Merced County Board of Supervisors, grand jury and assessment appeals board. A copy is available at www.boe.ca.gov/proptaxes/pdf/24apsr.pdf.

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