HHH audit due, homeowners don't take advantage of tax exemption

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Taxpayer money was the focus of this week's Newsmakers. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin is the independent watchdog for taxpayers. L.A. County Assessor Jeffrey Prang does not collect property tax, he determines the value of your property. He says many homeowners are not taking full advantage of tax relief that's available.

Galperin will be releasing an audit of the homeless housing Measure HHH.

"I'm required to audit it and what we are finding is that it is a very slow process and, quite frankly, unacceptable," he said. "It is now two and a half years since the voters really generously approved $1.2 billion in bond money to create up to 10,000 units, mostly permanent supportive units. To this day, we have not seen any units completed as part of that program. There are going to be a couple hundred hopefully done by the end of this year but they are at a cost of $525,000 plus. Unacceptable."

Galperin said the building process has to be faster and the city needs to explore nontraditional units.

"What can we do right now to help people who are dying on our streets?" he asked. "Because we have to save them."

"We are beginning to see more of these units that are going to come online by the end of the year. But the fact is at $525,000, you will never have enough public money, if that's what your cost is to build an affordable unit. We've got to drive those costs down," he added.

The controller has created an interactive map of all 14,000 publicly owned properties in the city of L.A. Many properties could be used to solve the housing crisis. To see the Property Panel map, click here.

"When I first came in to office, I was amazed-the city didn't even have a list of the property it owned. And so I set out to create that list," Galperin said. "But it wasn't enough to have a list. I wanted to map it. I wanted to know what all the government entities own, so that's how we came up with this."

Galperin is working to change some spending rules for the city's hundreds of special funds; there are between 700 and 800 of them.

"There are funds for everything you can possibly imagine, and there are dozens of funds for public safety, dozens of funds for housing. But the problem is those monies are so segregated, it's made it nearly impossible to spend. There's hundreds of millions of dollars that is nearly unspendable -- strange and crazy as that may sound -- and that's why we want to see that money unlocked. We've recommended a whole bunch of changes to the way these are created and the way they are managed, and the City Council, thankfully, is embracing those recommendations," Galperin said.

Prang oversees 2 1/2 million parcels of property assessed at $1.7 trillion with a market value much higher. Property taxes generate $16 billion for local government and schools.

Prang said more than a half million L.A. homeowners have not applied for the Homeowners Exemption. It was created by a state constitutional amendment in the early 70s. The exemption gives $7,000 reduction in assessed value, saving about $70 a year in property taxes.

"The challenge is about 30% of all homeowners in L.A. County fail to apply for the Homeowners Exemption, and we estimate there's about $30 million in savings available to taxpayers in the county and we want everybody to take advantage of it," Prang said.

The application is online on the assessor's website: click here.

Prang said last year, when federal income tax reforms went into place, people were concerned by the loss of a lot of deductions.

"There was a lot of effort in the legislature to try to create some opportunities to help homeowners," he said. "One of the easiest ones would simply be increasing the Homeowners Exemption to provide some tax relief. The state budget has room for property tax relief right now."

Prang will need to add hundreds of assessors if the split roll property tax Prop 13 revision passes on the 2020 ballot.

"Right now in L.A. County, there's about 160,000 commercial and industrial properties of which roughly 4,000 change hands every year. Under this split roll proposal, I would have to reassess all 160,000 properties either annually or cyclically. One of the benefits of our office is we can measure how long it takes to do everything. We estimate that we'll need to increase our employees by about 500. I currently have around 1,400," Prang added. "I would need to almost double my budget to comply with a split roll. It'll take several years before the dust finally settles."

Prang's predecessor may finally be coming to trial. There are pretrial matters scheduled for August for former Assessor John Noguez, indicted on corruption charges in 2012. Prang said he's put reforms in place so it can't happen again.

"The people of L.A. County can have confidence that this agency is run with the highest amount of integrity," Prang said. "The issues that plagued my predecessor have been resolved, and it would be very difficult for something like that to happen again."
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