Where did all the taxpayers go?
The number of Stanislaus County residents filing 2008 tax returns dropped nearly 3 percent, compared with those who filed for 2007. That was one of the biggest declines in California.
Fewer taxpayers meant nearly $27 million less income tax revenue from Stanislaus. That was a 9.4 percent drop.
Blame the recession and tax rebates for the decline.
"For 2007, the federal government had a tax rebate going on. So California saw many more tax returns filed, even though many of them had little or no tax liability," explained Brenda Voet, spokeswoman for the state Franchise Tax Board, which just released the 2008 data.
Those who earn less than $14,622 per year do not have to file tax returns unless they want a refund for taxes withheld from their paychecks.
But everyone who wanted those one-time-only federal stimulus rebates had to file 2007 tax returns. That wasn't the case for 2008, so the number of tax returns declined statewide.
The drop in Stanislaus was twice the state average, however, which may be another sign the county is losing population.
Considering the county's unemployment rate is above 19 percent, it wouldn't be surprising that residents are moving out.
Stanislaus' public schools have been losing enrollment steadily since 2006, when the housing bubble burst, and more than 18,000 of the county's homes have been lost to foreclosure since then.
The U.S. Postal Service has reported record-high numbers of vacant homes in Stanislaus, and landlords have lower-than-normal occupancy rates despite reduced rents and "move-in specials."
How many people still live in Stanislaus is something the U.S. Census Bureau is trying to calculate right now. Only 73 percent of Stanislaus households mailed back Census 2010 forms this spring, compared with the 77 percent who returned questionnaires in the 2000 census.
So now census takers are knocking on doors trying to track down residents in homes that didn't respond.
It will take the Census Bureau until about next March to reveal its official count for the numbers of people who live in each U.S. city, county and state.
If it turns out Stanislaus has lost population, it also will lose political clout and financial resources. Representation in Congress and the state Legislature is based on population, and district boundaries will be shifted depending on where people live.
Billions of dollars in annual tax allocations also are based on population.
Stanislaus residents, meanwhile, continue to earn significantly less than those living elsewhere in California.
The 2008 tax returns showed median income for taxpayers was $32,630 in Stanislaus compared with $35,923 statewide. California's highest earners live in Marin County, where the median was income was $51,904.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2196.