MODESTO -- Public humiliation can be a powerful tool.
Each year, Stanislaus County, the irrigation districts and other taxpayer- or ratepayer-funded agencies publish listings of people and companies that haven't paid their property tax assessments, along with how much they owe.
The agencies do this in part because they know there are people like me who read these lists from start to finish.
Will someone or a company you're familiar with make the list? A local politician? A neighbor? Probably.
How much do they owe? In some cases, it's so little that you wonder why the owners just don't pay up rather than face 18 percent annual interest plus other fees.
And who gets to know about it? Everyone.
Stanislaus County published its list of property tax delinquents Sunday in The Bee. It will run again Sept. 12 and Sept. 22, in case you missed it the first time around.
Three columns' worth of delinquencies filled an entire page. All of these properties have tax liabilities accrued since fiscal 2008-09. The totals reflect four years of taxes plus fees and interest, good through the end of this month. If the accounts are not settled by June 30, 2014, the county can seize and sell them.
Jegan Raja, the county's assistant tax collector, said the published notices do make an impact. Out of the 654 delinquencies listed, virtually all of them will be paid by the current owners or by banks that take over the properties through foreclosure. Only about 20 to 30 will be sold at a property tax auction in February 2015, he said.
In fact, the county sold only four properties at auction in 2009, six in 2010 and 13 in 2011.
Sunday's listing included delinquency amounts that ranged from a high of $522,002.76 involving Turlock's Cherry Tree Village affordable housing complex to a low of $45.73 attached to a private residence in Modesto. The vast majority are less than $8,000.
Cherry Tree Village was built in 1999 using local redevelopment funds and tax credits. Now controlled by a limited partnership based in Los Angeles, the complex can't generate enough rental revenue to maintain the property and pay the property taxes, according to Maryn Pitt, a Turlock City Community Development official. And while redevelopment options might have been able to help the ownership group, the state has basically eliminated redevelopment agencies.
"It's in limbo," Pitt said.
And if the property owner doesn't pay by June 30, 2014, add about $240,000 in taxes, interest and fees, running the bill up to more than $760,000.
The $45.73 bill stemmed from a supplemental tax the homeowner probably thought had been paid, Raja said. It hasn't.
The list includes Indalex, the bankrupt company so defunct that metal thieves stole most the building and sold it for scrap. The county eventually seized the property, scraped up the remainder of the plant that once made aluminum products, and hauled it off to the Fink Road Landfill. County officials hope to eventually recover some of the $338,700 tax liability.
The embarrassment tool, however, isn't guaranteed to work. Also on the list are more than two dozen properties at Diablo Grande west of Patterson. Walt Oxley Enterprises of San Jose owns four of them. Oxley told me he bought the parcels for $275,000 each when prices were at their peak and contractors were building homes there. Then the economy tanked. Water issues and bankruptcy loomed at Diablo Grande. Construction came to a halt and property values plummeted.
Oxley went to his lender, basically handing over the deeds of trust.
"They sold them back to me for $20,000, free and clear," Oxley said.
But when he asked the county assessor's office to reassess and lower his tax liability, officials declined.
Taxes are based in part on comparable sales. Lower listings and everything is dramatically lower than in 2008 don't count, and there hadn't been any recent sales for comparison.
"What about mine?" he said, referring to his repurchase from the bank.
The county denied his request. He owes about $49,000 in back taxes and probably won't attempt to catch up because there's no market for building homes out there anyway, he said.
"It doesn't embarrass me one bit," he said. "They (the county) need to figure something out. The reality is that a lot of municipalities are doing a terrible job of dealing with the downturn."
The Oakdale Senior Housing Limited Partnership owes $180,266, according to the list. City Finance Director Albert Avila said it is a clerical mistake the city is working with county officials to rectify. Yet the tax liability compounded over the past four years.
State-owned properties are exempt from property taxes, but not from the assessments of the fire protection districts that serve the state buildings. Consequently, the list shows eight parcels with liens from $117 to $211 each.
"The state refuses to pay," Raja said.
And as they try to close a $24 billion budget gap, state officials clearly are embarrassed about being outed in print for stiffing their public-service brethren, right?
Yeah, sure. Simply red-faced.
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