Carol Flaherty waited a long time before she could claim victory in her effort to have her Atherton property reappraised at a lower value.
It had taken 17 months from the time she filed an appeal with the San Mateo County Assessment Appeals Board in 2010 to the day she stated her case before the board.
When the board ruled in her favor after her appeals hearing in early March, she thought a refund check for the overpayment of property taxes she and her husband John had paid since 2010, plus interest, would arrive in the mail within a few weeks.
She was wrong. And now, she's fighting mad.
Ms. Flaherty's anger is the result of what she learned last month after making inquiries about her case -- that the county had a backlog of hundreds of such cases because the solo clerk of the appeals board was in a serious accident in March, and went out on a months-long medical leave. And because no one had been cross-trained to do his work, "everything is in limbo," she told the Almanac in an interview in late July.
The clerk's job involves processing the appeals board's decisions, notifying appellants, and, in the case of a successful appeal, sending along the new assessment information to the appropriate county office so that refunds checks can be sent out.
Greg Goumas, a real estate agent and appraiser who represented the Flahertys before the appeals board, said that since the clerk, Jack Yaco, went out on leave, he and his clients have received "no written notice of judgments" made by the board. He had received an email saying that the Flahertys' appeal had been successful because the judgment was issued shortly before Mr. Yaco's accident, he said.
"No back-up person? This is so egregious and so outlandish that it merits ... a full investigation," Ms. Flaherty said, adding that she had written to Supervisor Don Horsley and board President Adrienne Tissier about the matter.
Late last week, the Flahertys received their refund check, with 1.5 percent interest, but she's not letting the county off the hook. Attributing the action on her case to inquiries made by Mr. Horsley's office as a result of her complaint, she noted that "the squeaky wheel gets the oil. But if you're not a squeaky wheel, you sit at home wondering" what's happening.
The appeals board is independent of the assessor's office, and is overseen by the county manager's office. Assistant County Manager David Holland told the Almanac that he has been the person officially overseeing the board for only about six months. "It wasn't really assigned before," he said.
Mr. Holland confirmed that no one had been cross-trained to pick up Mr. Yaco's work load if necessary, but he said that's changing.
After the clerk went out on leave, Mr. Holland said, temporary help was brought in while someone with experience was sought and eventually found. That person, he said, will remain in the full-time position even when Mr. Yaco returns to work full time. (Mr. Yaco returned to work part time several weeks ago.)
Mr. Holland noted that the law allows counties to take up to two years to process property assessment appeals, and added that San Mateo County has complied with that requirement. But "we're looking at how we can move things forward to be done more quickly" in the future, he said. That includes the installation of new software that should be in place in four to five months, he said.
Rough few months
Despite the hiring of a new clerk, business since Mr. Yaco's accident hasn't gone smoothly, according to Mr. Goumas, who said he has some 200 clients with active appeals in the county right now -- about 150 from the Almanac's coverage area. When Mr. Yaco went out on leave, "the processes within the appeals board office, from my perspective, came to a pretty sudden halt," Mr. Goumas said.
"For example, when I went before the appeals board to appeal a case (in the past), I would usually get a notice of the decision within a week," he said. "Those have stopped coming -- I haven't received any notices" since Mr. Yaco's accident.
Also, he said, since the clerk went on leave, he has received notices of scheduled appeals hearings, "and after people arrived, we'd find (the hearing) was not on the docket for the day." Other times hearings were scheduled, but no advance notices were sent out, he said.
Santa Clara County
Mr. Goumas said he has also represented a number of clients before the Santa Clara County Assessment Appeals Board over the years, and although the process can be slow in both counties, Santa Clara County has enacted new practices to keep up with the increase in assessment appeals since 2008, when property values began to plummet. That hasn't happened in San Mateo County, he said.
Anika Campbell-Belton, assistant clerk of the board in Santa Clara County, confirmed that her office in 2010 increased the number of three-member appeals boards from two to three to meet the increased demand. The county also began offering appellants the option of having their cases heard by only one appeals board member, thereby allowing quicker processing of claims overall.
Santa Clara County processes considerably more appeals per year: In 2011-12, it heard nearly 9,600 appeals, and in prior recent years, that number has topped 10,000, Ms. Campbell-Belton said.
San Mateo County has only one three-member appeals board. Mr. Holland said. In 2008, the county heard 1,472 appeals; the following year, that number rose by slightly more than 300. Last year, there were 2,400 appeals, he said.
Ms. Flaherty said that although her business with the appeals process has finally been wrapped up for this assessment year, her concern about the county's handling of property tax assessments and appeals has not ended.
She said that she intends to keep an eye on the process, noting that "just because we got our checks, that doesn't mean that other people will be taken care of soon."