How Santa Clara County will help seniors paying taxes they don’t need to
A view of San Jose from the East/Evergreen side of the city. Photo by Kyle Martin.

School districts in California don’t require homeowners who are eligible for a parcel tax exemption to renew it every year, which means seniors over the age of 65 and low-income or disabled homeowners don’t have to reapply to continue getting a tax break.

But California law only allows school districts to grant exemptions — not mandate them. As a result, school districts in Santa Clara County make it difficult for those who are eligible to get information on the tax exemptions and application process, according to a Civil Grand Jury report from 2017. It doesn’t help that each school district has different sets of rules for how a homeowner can apply, county officials said, leaving applicants confused and misinformed about whether they are eligible for an exemption.

To better inform those who are eligible, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to create a plan to put that information on the ballot during election cycles and work with local organizations to increase outreach efforts.

Possible outreach efforts discussed by the supervisors include helping school districts receive information about a property’s change in ownership, attaching a letter or flyer to property tax bills and enlisting the Registrar of Voters, the Department on Aging or the Social Services Agency to help with reaching seniors and disabled residents.

“We want to help clear up the confusion for taxpayers by providing them with more information and, hopefully, simplify the application process,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese who joined Supervisor Cindy Chavez to bring the referral to the board’s attention. “There are ways the county could help, especially with outreach.”

Parcel taxes are real property taxes that are based on the assessed value of a homeowner’s property. These taxes are available to cities, counties and school districts. Currently, 24 out of 32 of Santa Clara County’s school districts offer parcel tax exemptions, however, each school district has a different set of requirements for applying for those exemptions.

Because of the variations in the application process, eligible homeowners have been confused about how to apply. For example, most school districts allow individuals to apply for an exemption “by mail or in-person, with some also offering online, fax and email applications,” according to county officials, but a few school districts, such as Moreland School District, still require an in-person application.

In response to the Civil Grand Jury report, Moreland has made accomodations for those who cannot apply in person.

Many of these discrepancies have led to seniors and other vulnerable residents paying for parcel taxes when they don’t need to. The parcel taxes in these school districts, which affect homeowners, vary from $49 to $790 per year, according to the Civil Grand Jury report.

Chavez wants to bolster outreach efforts by ensuring the county works with school districts on a “communications plan to better reach the older adults.” The lawmakers also suggested working with organizations such as AARP to reach seniors who may not know that the tax exemption programs exist or whether they qualify.

AARP declined to comment, but leaders said they’re “happy to learn more” about the county’s outreach efforts.

“It’s so easy to put in a flyer in the mail as an effective way to educate our communities around what they can and cannot pay,” added Gustavo Gonzalez, president of Santa Clara County’s Association of Realtors. “As realtors, I think the county could do something like that to educate folks.”

Starting on Jan. 1, the county will require school districts that collect parcel taxes to report eligibility requirements to the county’s controller-treasurer department. Residents who qualify for exemptions will be able to access that information through that department, once it’s put into a centralized database and published.

The Board of Supervisors called for a formal outreach plan proposal by Sept. 10.

“Look, if you say there’s an exemption, there should be an exemption,” said Board President Joe Simitian. “The exemption should be real and people should know how to access it relatively easily, reliably and without undue burden. I think that’s the goal all around.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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