By Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.
In this post-Proposition 13 era, California residents have become increasingly accustomed to being nickeled-and-dimed for services that once were every taxpayer’s due – particularly during tough times. And there is certainly no question that the past decade has been a tough one for local governments all around the state.
As the economy tanked, so did many city and county budgets, while demand for the services we provide stayed steady or increased. This cyclical mismatch between demand and funding pushed us to make up the difference however we could.
Since our ability to broadly increase taxes is limited by state law here in California, many of us implemented or increased fees we charge to the people who use specific services. Certainly understandable; and in some cases, absolutely necessary. But as we begin a new year, let’s take stock.
I doubt many of us would say we’ve fully recovered from the recession, but California’s local governments are now on a somewhat surer financial footing than they were a few years ago. We can’t take that for granted; they’re called “business cycles” for a reason. But now might be a good time to look back and ask ourselves: Did we go too far? Are we treating the public right?
I serve on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Until last year, our County, like a lot of local agencies, charged people a fee to pay their property taxes online with an “eCheck.” The fee was anywhere from $15 to $27, depending on the tax bill. When County staff looked into the actual cost of processing these online payments, they found it was far lower: 81 cents, to be exact. Staff then recommended that we charge people that 81 cents to pay online, which we on the Board of Supervisors declined to do. Instead we eliminated the fee entirely.
One result of rescinding this fee was that the number of people paying their property taxes online tripled between 2013 and 2014, when we took action. It’s more convenient for taxpayers and ultimately results in the County receiving more money more quickly (and earning interest on it as well). We no longer incur the cost of processing hard-copy paper checks for those payments. And this past year, County staff were able to eliminate a special station that they formerly had to set up to process a flood of in-person end-of-year tax payments, saving both headaches and money.
We’ve taken other small steps like this locally, including another related to property taxes. Until recently, if you believed that your Santa Clara County property assessment was too high (above fair market value), you had to pay a $40 fee to appeal that assessment. Even if you were right, and the Assessor lowered your assessment, the County kept the $40. In other words, the County was saying, “We messed up, but you have to pay us to fix our mistake.”
I brought this issue to my colleagues on the Board, and initially proposed refunding the fee for people who prevailed in their assessment appeals. The initial reaction from some County staff was, essentially, “That’s too complicated.” I found this argument unpersuasive and troubling, but ultimately changed my proposal to simply end the $40 fee entirely. That proposal passed in early November, a year after I first raised the issue.
It takes effort and perseverance to make even these small changes, but that’s our job: to make government work, and to treat the public right. It also requires engaged citizens. The assessment fee issue was brought to my attention by a constituent at a local farmers’ market. The converse of this, of course, is that local officials must be prepared to listen.
People don’t like it when a business nickel-and-dimes them. They like it even less when their own local government does it. Obviously the services we provide have a cost, but at a time when too many folks regard their government as “you people” or even worse, as an enemy, we can’t afford to further undermine the public’s trust in the public institutions that are meant to serve them.
Over my more than 30 years in elected office, many of my colleagues and I have worked in what ways we could to restore our constituents’ belief that government can and will do the right thing. This work is not always glamorous or grand in scope. Often, it’s about fixing small but meaningful problems in routine, even quotidian, interactions between people and their government.
Is it worth the effort? It is. Because it’s our job to treat the public right; and, because when we don’t, we undermine the public’s support for the important work of government. And in the long run, the public’s support for that work is worth a lot more than 81 cents.
Joe Simitian is a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. He has previously served as a local Mayor, School Board President, State Assemblyman, and State Senator (as well as a previous term on the Board of Supervisors).