California public records


    A guide to your rights as a citizen

    Keeping an eye on taxes

    You are en­titled to know how much you are pay­ing in taxes and where that money goes. In gen­er­al, this in­form­a­tion should be eas­ily ac­cess­ible.

    Re­cent state audits and re­ports from The Times have found that the city of Bell over­charged tax­pay­ers and de­man­ded ques­tion­able fees and fines from busi­ness own­ers. Fig­ur­ing out wheth­er you are be­ing un­fairly taxed can be com­plex. But here are some ba­sics.

    What information is available about the taxes I pay?

    You are en­titled to know how much you are pay­ing in taxes and where that money goes. In gen­er­al, this in­form­a­tion should be eas­ily ac­cess­ible.

    Prop­erty taxes make up the bulk of loc­al tax rev­en­ues. If you are a prop­erty own­er, all prop­erty tax charges will be de­tailed on your tax bill. There are three cat­egor­ies of charges you will find on your bill:

    • The gen­er­al tax levy: This should equal 1% of the net tax­able value of your prop­erty. Un­der Cali­for­nia law, a prop­erty’s as­sessed value may not in­crease by more than 2% per year un­less the prop­erty changes hands or new con­struc­tion is com­pleted.
    • Voted in­debted­ness: These charges are used to pay off voter-ap­proved debt. Loc­al gen­er­al ob­lig­a­tion bonds must be voter-ap­proved by a two-thirds ma­jor­ity. School bonds may be ap­proved by a 55% ma­jor­ity of voters.
    • Dir­ect as­sess­ments: These charges are im­posed for prop­erty-re­lated ser­vices — such as those provided by sew­er, wa­ter or fire dis­tricts. Your bill will in­clude phone num­bers for all en­tit­ies to which you pay dir­ect as­sess­ments, so you may con­tact them to in­quire about the basis for the as­sess­ment and when it was put in place.

    Some mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies also col­lect spe­cial voter-ap­proved loc­al sales and use taxes. Cur­rent sales tax rates are lis­ted by the Cali­for­nia State Board of Equal­iz­a­tion.

    Oth­er loc­al taxes may in­clude a util­ity user’s tax, tran­si­ent oc­cu­pancy tax, busi­ness li­cense tax, prop­erty trans­fer tax, con­struc­tion de­vel­op­ment tax, etc. Loc­al gov­ern­ments should be able to provide in­form­a­tion on all taxes they col­lect.

    How do I find out where my local taxes are supposed to go and whether they are being spent as intended?

    Cali­for­nia law re­quires voter ap­prov­al for all new or in­creased loc­al gov­ern­ment taxes (this does not ap­ply to fees, but the pas­sage of Pro­pos­i­tion 26 in Novem­ber re­clas­si­fied some fees as taxes, mean­ing they will now re­quire voter ap­prov­al). The city or dis­trict col­lect­ing the tax should be able to provide a re­cord show­ing when any new taxes were ap­proved by voters; elec­tion re­cords are also ac­cess­ible through the county elec­tions di­vi­sion or through your city clerk, if your city con­ducts its own elec­tions. If you are hav­ing trouble get­ting this in­form­a­tion from the city or dis­trict, the county aud­it­or-con­trol­ler’s of­fice is also provided with cop­ies of res­ol­u­tions by cit­ies and agen­cies re­gard­ing elec­tions that lead to tax rate changes. The Los Angeles County prop­erty tax in­form­a­tion line is 1-888-807-2111.

    Ex­pendit­ure of pub­lic funds is also a mat­ter of pub­lic re­cord. There are two types of tax: gen­er­al taxes that go to pay for gen­er­al gov­ern­ment­al pur­poses and spe­cial taxes des­ig­nated for a spe­cif­ic pur­pose (this in­cludes all taxes im­posed by spe­cial dis­tricts). If voters ap­prove bon­ded in­debted­ness or a spe­cial tax — a bond meas­ure to pay for a new school build­ing or a sales tax in­crease to go to pub­lic safety, for in­stance — the loc­al tax­ing body should be able to provide re­cords show­ing that the funds have been spent for that pur­pose.

    In the city of Bell, an audit by the state con­trol­ler’s of­fice found, among oth­er things, that the city had raised as­sess­ments and taxes without voter ap­prov­al and spent a por­tion of the pro­ceeds il­leg­ally to in­crease the salar­ies of city of­fi­cials.

    You may want to look at the an­nu­al in­de­pend­ent audits that pub­lic agen­cies in Cali­for­nia are re­quired to ob­tain. These audits should flag in­stances where the agency could not show that money was col­lec­ted or spent prop­erly (al­though in some cases, in­clud­ing in the city of Bell, the audit may not catch or point out all the is­sues).

    Are there any red flags that might show illegal taxation?

    Com­pare your prop­erty tax bills and oth­er taxes, like busi­ness li­cense taxes, from year to year. If there’s a large in­crease in your taxes and you don’t re­call see­ing a tax meas­ure on the bal­lot, it may be worth check­ing in­to.

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    If you have a pub­lic re­cord you would like to share with The Times, at­tach it to an email to doc­u­ or mail it to 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012, at­ten­tion City Desk.

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