Now we’ve got a public school district considering hiring a political PR firm to convince other government officials to raise tax revenue by raising property assessments. Such an action may be illegal and it sure is reckless.
Sure, campaigns supporting tax increases have hired professional help but not with taxpayers’ money. And, yes, with taxpayers’ money local governments have hired lobbyists to convince the state to send money their way. But this move by the West Contra Costa school district appears to be something new.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, told me, “The constitutional responsibility for setting assessments rests with the county assessor. For school districts to venture into this area is a gross misunderstanding of their jurisdiction.”
The Contra Costa Times reports that the school district is considering hiring a San Francisco political consulting/media firm to somehow convince the assessor to bring property assessments reduced when the real estate market collapsed during the Great Recession back to current market values, thus creating new government revenues, a portion of which goes to the schools.
Under a measure approved by the voters soon after Proposition 13 changed the property tax laws, if property values drop, the assessor can reduce those values, which comes with a corresponding reduction in taxes. However, once the real estate market rebounds, the assessor can bring the reduced property values back to their former place, which would result in an upward adjustment to the tax bill.
School officials say the recession is over and the property values have increased in Contra Costa County. The assessor, Gus Kramer, is not so quick to trigger reassessments. He told the newspaper that he wants to make sure what is happening is not another housing bubble driven by limited properties on the market and foreclosed properties selling at premium prices.
“All have visions of grandeur that all these properties are going to go back to pre-recession levels. It’s not going to happen,” Kramer said.
Enter the consultants to …. do what? Change the assessor’s mind? Will a media firm determine how much property is worth?
Coupal noted that the duty of the assessor is ministerial and must be above political pressure that the district would apply by hiring a political media firm.
He also speculated that if the district hired the consultants, paying the firm could be considered an illegal gift of public funds.