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June 14, 2021

San Benito remains on hook for back tax

San Benito County received another jolt to its budget this week when an assembly bill introduced in February that would have forgiven $3.5 million in property tax owed due to miscalculations over nearly a decade was killed in the Senate appropriations committee.

“I don’t think they want to put themselves in a position to give anything away when they are taking things away,” said Supervisor Margie Barrios. “It was not in the general fund, but if they got it back it would go into the general fund. I feel they are doing a lot of cutting back – proposing a tax measure on the ballot in November – and they don’t want to send out the message of someone getting relief when they are taking things away from people.”

Assembly Bill 1676, authored by state Assemblyman Luis Alejo and with state Senator Anthony Canella’s name also attached to it, passed the state assembly with overwhelming support in May. In June, Supervisor Margie Barrios testified before the senate committee in support of the bill, along with Sheriff Darren Thompson and Joe Paul Gonzalez, the auditor. Nearly 17 local and regional agencies submitted letters in support of the bill. But the chair for the committee said with the state’s own budget issues it would not be prudent to forgive the debt at this time.

“We were able to get it through the committees and had the full vote of the state assembly,” Alejo said at the meeting. “But where it ran into problems was in the state appropriation committee. They offered some comments and some recognition. We will try again next year.”

Two supervisors expressed relief that the county may be able to take some recourse next year.

“I appreciate the comments on the ERAF (education revenue augmentation fund),” said Supervisor Jerry Muenzer. “We got word that it was a dead issue after the Senate denied it, but it may not be.”

Barrios said when they left Sacramento after testifying, she thought there was no hope of reviving the issue.

“But I talked with the auditor (Joe Paul Gonzalez) and he said maybe we could bring a multiple-county effort forward,” she said. “Its tough economic times we are experiencing and it was not something that set well to offer this relief. But we are not done. We will need to bring it back.”

The discrepancy in property tax for the education revenue augmentation fund was discovered in audits of the county by the state controller’s office in 2005 and 2009. The fund had been underfunded between 1993 and 2001.

“Due to its small size, San Benito County is not audited as often as large counties,” said Alejo, in a press release in May, when the bill was approved in the assembly. “Therefore, tax revenue errors go unnoticed for longer periods of time. This allows the debt to compound before giving the county an opportunity to correct the mistake.”

In the past, the state legislature has approved similar bills to forgive debt assessment for Riverside, Plumas, Santa Clara and Santa Barbara counties.

Barrios said in a different economic climate, the bill would have been approved.

“We will wait for a better climate,” she said. “Maybe next year.”

County Administrative Officer Rich Inman said in the board of supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday that the county has the money set aside in a reserve fund if the state requires payment in full this fiscal year.

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