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 October 1999

Guest Commentary
At Tax Time, $600 Equals $10,000
By Gordon Dillow

Since the dawn of history, tax collectors have had an almost un-canny ability to strike confusion and terror in the hearts of the populace. And that's as true here in Orange County as it is anywhere else.

Consider, for example, the case of Raymond's canoe.

Raymond Freitas, 47, and his twin brother Roy run Ray's Old Town Barber Shop in Orange; they're the guys who provide me with the fashionable hairdo pictured above. And since they're my pals as well as my barbers, I try to help out whenever they get into beefs with government agencies, which seems to occur with disturbing frequency.

A few months ago, for example, I helped Roy beat the rap when he was accused by the city of Orange - falsely, he still insists - of being a tree murderer.

Anyway, the other day I was in the barber chair, getting a rinse and set, when Raymond mentioned that he'd just received a $10,000 "escape assessment" from the County Assessor's Office - which puzzled him, since Raymond insists he's never even been in prison, much less busted out of one.

He showed me the document, though, and sure enough it was titled, "Notice of Proposed Escape Assessment." Although it appeared to be in English, I couldn't make heads or tails out of it. Neither could Raymond.

But after we held it up to the light and examined it from various angles, we finally realized that it was about a boat. The assessor's office was saying that Raymond owned a boat worth $10,000, and the county wanted him to pay 1 percent of its value in personal property tax - which is to say, $100.

Well, it's true that Raymond has a boat. But it's not a $10,000 boat. Raymond's "boat" actually is a 17-foot canoe that only cost him about $600 brand new.

Something clearly was wrong here; I told Raymond I'd try to get to the bottom of it. So I called Assistant County Assessor Rich Swanson.

Rich explained that every year the assessor's office does thousands of escape assessments. They call them escape assessments because they're assessments on property that "escaped" being assessed before. In other words, the county finds out that you had taxable personal property that it didn't know you had - a boat, for example - and now it wants you to cough up the dough.

As for Raymond's canoe, Rich acknowledged with admirable candor that assessing a $600 canoe at $10,000 sounded a little excessive, even for the government; apparently it was a mistake. Rich said that Raymond could file an appeal and chances are his canoe will escape the escape assessment.

And with even more admirable candor, Rich also acknowledged that assessment mistakes - or at least assessment differences of opinion - happen all the time.

"Too often people get these (tax bills) and they'll just go ahead and pay it and then complain about how high taxes are," Rich says. "People need to question these things, and if they disagree (with the assessment) they should file an appeal."

So if you get one of these escape-assessment notices - or any property-tax notice - take a good long look at it before you write out a check.

Meanwhile, Raymond has put his canoe up for sale. And he's hoping someone from the County Assessor's Office will buy it.

The price is $10,000.

Gordon Dillow is a columnist for The Register of Orange County. He may be reached at (714) 796-7953 or by e-mail at gldillow@aol.com. This September 2 column is reprinted with permission.