June 1, 2012
Accusations Of San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Office Impropriety
Accusations of impropriety within San Francisco's Office of the Assessor-Recorder have been lobbed over at mungpao.com. According to the site, a fundraiser and political friend of San Francisco Assessor-Recorded Phil Ting was given preferential tax bill treatment for a property purchased in 2007.
The text and accusations (emphasis theirs) from mungpao:
On December 24, 2007 Safai Ahsha, a fundraiser and political friend of Phil Ting, brought a brand new house on 27 Athens Street for $1,150,000. The Assessor- Recorder Office processed the sale in March of 2010. The 2007 supplemental bill, and the 2008 and 2009 escape bills were issued on May 28, 2010. The 2008 and 2009 escape bills are necessary to capture the property tax differences of what should accurately be billed for these two years. Since these two escape bills were issued on May 28, 2010, both of the 2008 and 2009 bills were already out.
Under Phil Ting's order? the Chief Appraiser, Matthew Thomas canceled the 2009 escape bill in October of 2010. He, however, reissued the exact same bill within two weeks of its cancellation. As a result, there are penalties, redemption fees, and the interests became cancelled. The 2009 escape bill became qualified for interest free 5-year installment plan, under section 4837.5 of the Revenue and Taxation Code, which provides that secured escape assessments for prior fiscal years maybe paid over a 4-year period at the option of the assessee. Therefore, revenue that was due to the government was lost, and Ahsha enjoys the unjustly and illegally gained 5-year interest-free government loan.
The 2009 escape bill was issued on May 28, 2010; it is still within fiscal year 2009. So, the 2009 escape was a current year escape and cannot qualify for the 5-year installment plan. Please bear in mind the 2009 escape was not paid on the due date of July 14, 2010. This means a 10% penalty, redemption fees, and 1.5% per month interest is now applicable.
By cancelling the 2009 escape, all the penalties, redemption fees, and interests are wiped out. By reissuing it in 10/2010, the escape bill became a prior year escape bill. This is because the new bill was issued in fiscal year 2010. Therefore, it qualifies as a 5-year installment interest- free plan.
However, as for the 2008 escape bill, because it already qualified for the 5- year interest free installment plan, it was not cancelled or reissued. This is the only reason why no actions were made on the 2008 escape bill.
It is very clear the sole purpose of these unusual and illegal actions is to benefit Mr. Safai Ahsha, Phil Ting’s fundraiser, who held a fundraising event for Phil Ting on December 10, 2009 at Lot 46 Night Club & Loung at 46 Geary Street, San Francisco. Phil Ting endorsed Ahsha when Ahsha ran for supervisor.
Initially, the Chief Appraiser requested the Chief of Standard to carry out the cancellation. However, the Chief of Standard emailed back the Chief of Appraiser indicating he is uncomfortable about doing the cancellation. Therefore, the Chief of Appraiser finally did the cancellation himself and asked the MIS staff, Ron Santo-Domingo, to approve his work, in order to satisfy the computer system requirement. The Chief of Appraiser also reduced the January 1, 2010 roll value for Ahsha, from $1,170,218 to $725,000. That is a $445,218 difference.
These duties are only supposed to be done by the appointed District Appraiser, not by the Chief of Appraiser. The Chief of Standard knew that this is a very serious violation of the law. Even though this is an order by Phil Ting, he rightfully refused to participate in this matter.
Phil Ting, the Assessor, has willfully participated in this conspiracy by ordering his Chief Appraiser to cheat the very government revenue he has sworn to protect. We need to stop this kind of abuse by exposing his criminal acts to the public.
We haven’t reached San Francisco's Office of the Assessor-Recorder for comment.
UPDATE: We received the following statement from Chief Appraiser Matthew Thomas in the Assessor-Recorder's Office, which we've formatted for easier reading:
We strive to help every constituent that contacts our office to ensure they receive a fair assessment and excellent customer service.
A homeowner brought a case into the office, the case was reviewed on the merits and an adjustment was reached that followed the facts and applicable regulations. The Assessor-Recorder does not get involved personally with constituent appraisals. All constituent cases are handled by our staff of professional appraisers. We encourage any property owner who feels they are entitled to a reassessment to contact our office.
Last year the Assessor-Recorder’s Office proactively reduced over 18,600 properties that have declined in market value. Under state law (Proposition 8) if the current market value is lower than the assessed value, a temporary homeowners’ property tax reduction may be applied.
The property at 27 Athens is a 2,096 square foot three-bedroom single-family home with two baths which was built in 2007 and purchased that December for $1,150,000 ($549 per square foot). At $725,000, the tax assessed value is $346 per square, a reduction of 38 percent.
While we haven’t been presented with the homeowner’s case, the median price per square foot for single-family homes that sold in 27 Athen's zip code (94112) dropped 21.2 percent from 2007 to 2010, 23.6 percent from 2007 to 2011, but the median area home is much smaller (around 1,200 square feet) and older construction.
We couldn't find any decent 2010 era comps, in terms of sales, for the house.
First Published: June 1, 2012 10:15 AM
Comments from "Plugged In" Readers
Good job for exposing this, thanks very much.
Posted by: unwarrantedinlaw at June 1, 2012 10:50 AM
"We haven’t reached San Francisco's Office of the Assessor-Recorder for comment."
Uh, Why not?
[Editor’s Note: See UPDATE above.]
Posted by: eddy at June 1, 2012 10:54 AM
Classic, classic Phil Ting....
Posted by: soccermom at June 1, 2012 11:21 AM
This is what happens when you politicize the Assessor's job by making him an elected official. What on earth is the point of having the assessor elected??
[Same arguments apply for DA and CA but that would be OT].
Posted by: BobTheBuilder at June 1, 2012 11:35 AM
The escape tax stuff looks like small potatoes, although it occupies most of the article/posting. The real zinger is the reduction in assessed value from from $1,170,218 to $725,000. How the hell does that get done without some kind of formal process structured, transparent process?
Posted by: around1905 at June 1, 2012 11:44 AM
Anyone going to post this on Phil's wall?
Posted by: Mikemmmm at June 1, 2012 12:01 PM
If you google his phone number (add 415), it shows up as a business Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs, which, rather than a cabinet maker, is a local lobbyist.
From his partner's Linked in Description of their business:
Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs is a public affairs firm that specializes in traversing the local San Francisco political environment, providing assistance to businesses and individuals with strategic political relations and communications, urban land use planning, campaign management and advising, social media engagement, data management and targeting as well as community outreach and grassroots organizing.
At least they are effective at getting influence!
From his partner's linked in resume, prior job:
Statewide Campaign Manager for San Francisco Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier's campaign for California Insurance Commissioner.
So it looks like these guys just go around and raise money for the politicians, and then sell the favors they are owed, occasionally collecting them themselves. It's probably been like this forever. I don't know why the uproar - maybe people didn't realize it's been going on like this? Doubt it's going to change soon. It's just the way of the world.
Posted by: tipster at June 1, 2012 12:02 PM
I dunno. In December 2007 the place went for $1,170,218, right at the peak of the market. A reduction in value a few years later to $725,000 sounds just about right, especially for this part of town (heck, it was probably not reduced enough for that area). The scandal would be if others did not get the same reasonable reduction after the bubble popped.
Posted by: anon at June 1, 2012 12:06 PM
Who is surprised by this revelation. Raise your paws.
Posted by: Iona Derman at June 1, 2012 12:24 PM
"...bought a brand new house on 27 Athens Street for $1,150,000.'"
Wow, there were some real fools buying properties in SF in 2007. I'd guess this place is down at least 35% since then, maybe more. Over a million for that neighborhood? Cut the poor sucker a break on his tax shenanigans, people!
Posted by: El Bombero at June 1, 2012 2:34 PM
This accusation of quid pro quo certainly isn't going to help Phil Ting in his race for office in District 19 State Assembly.
Kudos to Socketsite, as this is the first I have read about the story.
Posted by: Jackson at June 1, 2012 2:48 PM
anon @ 12:06 - look again. this is essentially new construction, attractively done, maxing out the property envelope. and while this isn't the gloriously bejeweled "real SF", it isn't on Palou either. a 40% reduction in annual tax assessment is just unreal; my experience has been that the assessor's office is rather parsimonious about reductions. since this property is at the peak of its immediate neighborhood there would be little in the way of "comps" to justify a significant reduction. last year the "default" reduction for market value (from current basis -- not purchase price) in this area from the assessor's office was a single-digit percentage; anything more than that required evidence that similar-sized properties in the area sold for less (I haven't seen them accept price/sq ft comparisons for buildings of different size). without similar properties, any normal citizen would have a bear of a time getting much beyond a low 10's reduction. i see nothing but influence peddling here.
Posted by: Average Joe at June 1, 2012 3:00 PM
"The scandal would be if others did not get the same reasonable reduction after the bubble popped."
Exactly, anon. You should read the NY Times Bay Guardian stories on the difficulties reasonable people have had in getting their homes re-assessed after the downturn.
I had to fight for 6 months with an assessor to convince them that the house I bought in an open-market, MLS-listed, traditional brokered, on-the market-for-6-months transaction should be valued at the 2009 price I paid and not the previous 2006 valuation the seller.
It was Kafka on Van Ness.
Posted by: soccermom at June 1, 2012 4:41 PM
all I know is that I have a 1 bedroom on the ground floor at the exceedingly busy corner of gough and pacific and somehow my unit has appreciated every year since purchase in 2007 despite my multiple protestations and tax adjustment applications
Posted by: jake at June 1, 2012 9:46 PM
We strive to help every constituent that contacts our office to ensure they receive a fair assessment and excellent customer service. A homeowner brought a case into the office, the case was reviewed on the merits and an adjustment was reached that followed the facts and applicable regulations. The Assessor-Recorder does not get involved personally with constituent appraisals. All constituent cases are handled by our staff of professional appraisers. We encourage any property owner who feels they are entitled to a reassessment to contact our office. Last year the Assessor-Recorder’s Office proactively reduced over 18,600 properties that have declined in market value. Under state law (Proposition 8) if the current market value is lower than the assessed value, a temporary homeowners’ property tax reduction may be applied.
Posted by: Matthew Thomas at June 1, 2012 10:19 PM
The last-minute accusation comes from a political opponent of Ting.
Read more about the source behind this story here:
Posted by: TSquad at June 1, 2012 10:54 PM
Is this a joke?
I filed multiple request to the Assessor's Office the past 3 years requesting a tax reduction on my SOMA condo and it's been a miserable experience.
First off, nobody answers the phone at the Assessor's Office. If you go down in person, expect to wait in line for an hour, get passed around from one worker to the next and finally someone telling you that the person you need to speak to is not working and they will call you back.
Guess what, nobody calls you back!
Second, Phil Ting during his mayor campaign (which he wasted tax payer's money with) went around town telling people to fill out a informal review to get your value lowered. I filled it out showing comps (unit above mine, same sq ft, floorplan) that sold under $90K from mine and I still got rejected. Had to appeal at the Assessment Board. Any idiot would know that prices dropped at least 10% 2 years ago.
Now Socketsite is telling me that Phil and his Chief Assistant lowered a property $400K+ for one of his fundraisers? Just like that? No run arounds, No endless waits on the phone, No sending in letters, Just going to his assistant and it gets done that quick?
Has anyone on this site actually tried to get their assessment lowered? It's probably the most difficult thing to do. Getting someone to talk to you at Phil's office is impossible.
Shame Shame on you Phil!
Hopefully someone will get these guys out of the office.
Posted by: Mr. Taxpayer at June 1, 2012 11:59 PM
I couldn't agree more.
Admittedly, working in the Assessor's office must be a challenging job in an environment of a tough economy and people frustrated about declining property values. One would have to deal with a lot of ticked-off people.
That said, my experience was ridiculous. I wound up asking my appraiser to sign an affirmation that she had received the valuation documents I presented to her when I dropped them off for my review. Good thing I did, because when I checked in 6 weeks later, the same appraiser denied meeting with me.
I had to re-file my homeowner's exemption three times before it was placed accurately onto the the assessment record.
Fairness and efficiency don't seem like such high expectations from an Assessor's office. I found neither.
Guidelines for property owners:
1. Your property has a specific individual appraiser (assigned by geography for residences). Find out who the individual is by name. Schedule an appointment. You should receive a business card with the appraisers' e-mail address. Be polite.
2. Keep records of all of your interactions (e-mails etc.) Document your work. Get your comps from Redfin etc. and keep a copy of whatever you provide.
3. Expect a fight. Be patient. Again, I had to fight for 6 months to prove that the price I paid in an open-market transaction was the valid assessment basis. I wasn't even trying to get my assessment lowered - I was trying to get my purchase price onto the tax roll.
Posted by: soccermom at June 2, 2012 7:28 AM
Once Mayor Ed is done firing Sheriff Ross, I think the next step is to remove Mr. Ting and Matthew Thomas from their jobs. What a waste of taxpayer's money.
Posted by: Todd F at June 2, 2012 8:40 AM
So it does look like this guy got a fair re-assessment. And from the anecdotes, it sounds like few, if any, others are so lucky as to get a fair re-assessment. Criminal.
But let's see how the case would flesh out. "Your honor, the prosecutor's position is that the defendant assessor gave precisely the re-assessment to which his co-conspirator was entitled under the law. And so, uh, um, we think you should find probable cause and set the matter for a bond hearing."
Posted by: anon at June 2, 2012 9:12 AM
WOW first time on this site I actually agree with Tipster!
If this is the real Matthew Thomas from the Assessor's Office I'm amazed he has the time to respond to this post when taxpayers are still waiting for months from him to respond to their request.
Since Matthew is on this site, can you answer a few questions for me?
- Does anyone actually read those informal reviews or is it just a waste of paperwork to make people jump through hurdles to get to the next step.
- Why can't the Assessor's Office be more efficient? I've dealt with other offices like the Tax Collector's Office and even DBI and they've been more responsive than yours?
"We strive to help every constituent that contacts our office to ensure they receive a fair assessment and excellent customer service."
I doubt this!
"All constituent cases are handled by our staff of professional appraisers."
Are you the district appraiser for the above property? If not, how did you get involved without Phil asking for you to do his dirty work?
"We encourage any property owner who feels they are entitled to a reassessment to contact our office."
What's the best way to contact your office? Emails, Letters, Showing up in person or Donating money to Phil. Serious question, I'll do anything to get my tax records straighten out.
@soccermom; great job finally getting your resolved by waiting 6 months and tracking down your appraiser is not what I call good customer service.
Posted by: Mr Taxpayer at June 2, 2012 9:13 AM
This whole story is taken from one source - a perennial candidate in the race for assembly who works at the Assessor's office and, rumor has it, was demoted by Ting when he came in after the previous Assessor quit. Think you would at least note the source...
Posted by: bettyb at June 2, 2012 12:02 PM
I definitely agree with Tipster - 2007 was not exactly the best time to buy a home because of the housing bubble bursting just the year afterward. More home assessments need to be lowered - the market is crashed in so many areas, particularly this neighborhood. So many homes are underwater all over the state and nation.
Posted by: Anon2 at June 2, 2012 12:03 PM
I have had very satisfactory dealings with the Assessor's office (and I am not a Ting donor).
I co-own a 4-unit building, purchased in 2007. Because it's not a SFH or condo, it's not eligible for "informal review."
I timely filed the formal review paperwork for tax year 2009, and had to wait forever (9 months, if memory serves) to get a hearing scheduled. But eventually the hearing was scheduled, and a couple of weeks before the hearing date I was contacted by the assessor assigned to my case, who proposed a settlement at a number that was higher than what I had requested but in the ballpark. His defense of his own number was thoughtful--he'd looked at my comps and some others too. I agreed to his number and signed a stipulated agreement, which was filed with the hearing officer. The appraiser also agreed, by email, to keep my property at the same value for the 2010 tax year, in return for my agreement not to seek a further reduction. My 2010 tax bill did not reflect this agreement, but the error was corrected after I forwarded the pertinent emails to the new appraiser assigned to my neighborhood. In 2011, my tax-assessed valuation reverted to the original "Prop 13 value" (purchase price plus improvements plus 2% annual appreciation), but I called the Assessor's Office, spoke to the appraiser assigned to my neighborhood, and worked out a reasonable reduction without even going through the formal hearing/review process. I made it clear that I would accept any reasonable number that he proposed--and I did.
All in all, I feel that I've been treated fairly and tolerably efficiently by city bureaucrats who, understandably, have struggled to adjust to the unfamiliar event of a widespread decline in SF property values.
I have also been told that the Assessor is hemmed in by state law, which apparently mandates that property be assessed for tax purposes using one of three methods (income, replacement cost, comparable sales), and which by implication prevents the Assessor from using the simplest, most defensible approach (purchase price discounted by an "apples"-derived index of market decline since the date of purchase).
Posted by: happy customer at June 2, 2012 2:07 PM
Politics, more politics and then more politics. This story comes from a political opponent of Ting.
Posted by: Voter at June 2, 2012 2:35 PM
UPDATE: thanks for the pictures. New construction for $710K? I smell fraud, Mr Thomas.
Wanna share what comps were used to get this valuation? Did the owner have to wait to get it reduced or they called Phil direct and got it done quickly?
Also, why did you cancel the transaction and reapply it?
Posted by: Todd F at June 2, 2012 3:22 PM
Who cares if the Ahsha story comes from a political opponent of Phil Ting if the story is true? Probably a very experienced appraiser would have to be sifting through the tea leaves in the assessment database to suss out this kind of detail. Transparency is still better than not, right?
Do you want someone in office who is willing to use whatever meager pull they have to favor their friends and supporters? There's a name for that approach, whether it's big time or small time. Corruption.
The great irony is that with the Democratic machine endorsement, Ting is likely to win the new 19th assembly district, despite the fact that he has likely alienated a majority of the constituents he serves as Assessor. SF Voters can't win for losing. I'll happily vote for anyone else...
Posted by: soccermom at June 2, 2012 7:51 PM
I have done three assessment appeals and a number of public records requests to get at information about the assessment appeals process so that I could evaluate the data. I agree that the process is not user friendly. The trick is to 1) gather your comps materials and send them in with the appeal and 2) demand a Request for Exchange of Information. This last part requires the Assessor to actually provide their counter evidence. Even with this, however, it is a two plus year process. The Appeals Board does not even look at your filing for a year. Then to actually get a hearing can take another 8 months after the one year. Then, if you are entitled to a refund, the Tax Collector takes another 6 months to send it and only if you pester them. The best you can do is to issue a public records request, which the Assessor's office won't acknowledge, but the other departments will respond to. My experience is that the Assessor is overloaded, slow, and does not have the most competent folks. The Appeals Board is actually responsive. The Controller/Treasurer (on the issue of issuing refunds) don't know what they are doing, can barely add the numbers up, and are violating the law in many instances on how they calculate the refund amount.
Posted by: Anon at June 3, 2012 4:11 PM
@ Anon, that all sounds great but if the Assessor's Office is so busy, how does Phil Ting have so much time to run 3 different campaigns in the past 2 years? He ran for Assessor, Mayor (lost) and now Assembly.
I'm not surprised Phil is using his power to help lower his friend's assessment. This is the guy who used taxpayer's funds to run for mayor. He spent $500K+ and only got 1,000 votes. A record of $500 a vote!
The Assessor's Office is so busy that Matthew Thomas has time to search the internet and respond to these allegations.
Posted by: Mr. Taxpayer at June 3, 2012 5:11 PM
Phil is a politician. They run campaigns while they are in office. All of them do. I think Mr. Taxpayer has a personal issue with Phil. Phil isn't going to do any assessments, his running campaigns isn't going to get your reassessment done any quicker.
The politicians come and go, but the staff was there when Phil got there and will be when he leaves. Matthew Thomas is probably interested in real estate enough to read this site at least occasionally. I just can't see how that's a bad thing.
Finally, if you move into a jurisdiction that A)pays everyone and B)gives 90% of the potential taxpayers an exemption (e.g. you can take your prop 13 basis with you, and your kids or just about any other relative, get your basis for life when you die), then you're probably going to be paying an awful lot of taxes, and sometimes more than your fair share. Did you miss that part about SF? If you and a handful of others are paying all the taxes, and all the politicians can do is spend the taxes faster than they get them, expect to get screwed.
So the county will cut staff when real estate prices go down to slow the appeals to keep the money coming in. All those transients aren't pouring in here from out of state because the benefits here aren't gold plated. And face it, their first class medical care costs a lot of your money. Did you not see them on your first visit here?
Get used to it, it isn't going to get any better any time soon.
Posted by: tipster at June 3, 2012 8:39 PM
For the avoidance of doubt, I think the "political opponent of Phil Ting" to whom the editor and others have referred obliquely is James Pan. Please correct me if I am wrong here.
Pan ran against Ting in the recent San Francisco Assessor's race which Ting won. Pan is currently running against Phil Ting in the District 19 assembly race. James Pan is an experienced appraiser working in the San Francisco assessor's office, and (per the SF Chronicle story above) allegedly the person in the office who changed the assessment values of supporters of the Mabel Teng, the person who held the Assessor's position prior to Phil Ting.
Basically, James Pan seems well suited to spot shenanigans in the assessor's office as he has been implicated in such shenanigans in the past.
Again, none of this changes the facts - Phil Ting's supporters apparently getting special treatment.
How tragi-comically ironic, then that Phil Ting's election vehicle/pet project to 'Reset San Francisco' http://www.resetsanfrancisco.org/ contrasts so neatly with his own time in office that mirrors the petty power abuses of his predecessor.
Re-Set San Francisco? I can think of an elected official I would like to re-set.
Only Herb Caen could make this a charming San Francisco story...
Posted by: soccermom at June 4, 2012 8:45 AM
I remember when Ed Jew was busted as a Supe for bribery/extortion in the permitting process, and his defense was going to be a lack of criminal intent because everyone does this sort of thing in the community, so he did not think there was anything wrong with it. He pleaded guilty so we'll never see how that defense would have played out. Not sure if that defense was legally sound, but it certainly seems to be factually accurate. Maybe we'll get to see Phil Ting assert it.
Posted by: anon at June 4, 2012 9:04 AM
"While we haven't been presented with the homeowner’s case"
"We haven’t received any statements addressing the cancelling and reissuing of a past property tax bill"
Is it me, or are these worded strangely? Ed, do you expect to be involved in this? Have you asked for this information?
Posted by: R at June 4, 2012 9:37 AM
Like "Happy Customer", I also had a very positive experience with the re-assessment process. Of course I probably feel positive about it because I received a decent reduction in my assessed value based on comps. I saw several posts from unhappy folks so I thought I'd just comment that for at least some people it works out well.
Like Anon @ 4:11, I also found it to be a ridiculously long process (28 months from application to refund).
Posted by: mkk at June 4, 2012 11:49 AM
I'm not going to lie, I did vote for Phil Ting. Of course I didn't vote for him during the mayor's race; nobody did.
I agree with the above posters who pointed out that it doesn't matter who leaked these allegations. If they are true, they should be addressed. We got a vague response from somebody from Phil's office but it doesn't answer any of the the questions like 1) was this a favor for Phil 2) What comps were used 3) why were the bills cancels and reissued etc.
Obviously they know this article has been posted...
During Phil's campaign his slogan was Professional Not a Politician. Not sure either can be said of him anymore....
Posted by: Mr. Taxpayer at June 4, 2012 3:07 PM
Soccermom doesn't generally support negative advertisements in political campaigns, but a couple of hatchet-job flyers that made me smile arrived in my mailbox from Phil Ting Assembly District 19 seat opponent Michael Breyer this week.
I am voting for any person who isn't Phil Ting.
Posted by: soccermom at October 10, 2012 3:42 PM