SELMA – A clerical error made by the city when preparing the property tax roll has cost Selma taxpayers both directly and indirectly through higher-than-expected property tax bills and a fee imposed on the city paid by tax dollars that could have been spent elsewhere.
The error has since been corrected, and City Manager Fernando Santillan explained the situation during an information and discussion item at the Jan. 16 Selma City Council meeting.
Selma property owners received incorrect property tax assessments last fall due to an error on the city’s part that left off the trash assessment fee from the property tax roll that the city sends to Fresno County. This caused the initial property tax assessments sent in the last week of October 2023 to be hundreds of dollars less than they were supposed to be, resulting in confusion and budgeting difficulties for residents.
Santillan said that the yearly refuse (garbage) rate charges were omitted from the initial property tax bills “because of a mostly clerical and miscommunication error, which the city of Selma and finance department fully take responsibility of.”
At the council meeting, Santillan said the error was caught in November 2023 and the county sent out adjusted bills to residents on Dec. 18, 2023.
“As soon as we were made aware of it, we reached out to the Fresno County Tax Collector’s office to figure out, first of all, how it happened, and secondly, what we needed to do to correct the issue,” Santillan said.
The trash assessment fee is billed to all residential property owners annually with their tax bills in order to pay for the garbage and recycling services provided to the city by Waste Management; the cost per residence is approximately $450.
Additionally, Santillan said that the county will be charging the city a fee for the cost of processing and sending out the adjusted bills. That cost has not been finalized, but Santillan said the estimate provided by the county was $50,000, to be paid from the city budget.
“At the end of the day, it is something that we were able to correct,” Santillan said. “It’s gonna be a little bit longer lead time before we’re able to collect the full amount of the refuse rate charges, but at the end of the day, the city will be made whole. The biggest concern, I think, was the inconvenience to the community, which I know was pretty significant.”
Residents who spoke on the item said they were unhappy with the city, not just for the inconvenience, but because it made them doubt the city’s ability to fulfill its primary obligations.
“When there’s a department that their job — their only job — is to make sure that the accounting is done right, then they should do it right,” resident Santiago Oceguera said. “If I make a mistake and I don’t send my payment to the mortgage company, they’re gonna come after me. They don’t take sorry for an excuse; they want their money, and they want it now.”
Selma Mayor Scott Robertson said that he thinks it would have been a better situation had the city gotten out in front of the issue and been more transparent about what happened and what they were working on to fix it.
He suggested that if anything like this were to happen in the future, city staff should be more proactive with informing residents and publicizing the situation so all residents know what is going on.
“One thing I would encourage the city to do in the future — and I’ve heard this from many, many residents — is get out in front of this,” Robertson said. “Send something out to each citizen so that they can get ahold of their mortgage (lender) and let them know, hey, you’re going to be billing me a little bit less this time … just so the citizens know.”
Addressing the error
Property taxes are billed by the county in two installments, though the property tax assessment is generally sent out in a single bill, which allows property owners to see the total cost and plan accordingly. The first installment was due on Nov. 1, 2023, and became delinquent if not paid by Dec. 10, 2023, and the second installment is due on Feb. 1 and will become delinquent if not paid by April 10.
To fix the error, the entire trash assessment fee will be billed in the second installment.
Individuals pay their property tax bills differently, Santillan said, which has made the situation impact everyone in a different way as well. Some people will pay through an escrow or impound account managed by their mortgage lender, while others pay in the prescribed installments and some pay the amount immediately in full.
Santillan said that as soon as the error was caught, the county changed its process and did not accept payments immediately made by property owners, instead instructing them to wait for the adjusted bill. However, Santillan said some bills were still processed, and so those individuals will now have an additional charge to pay.
The error occurred around the same time the city lost its finance department head, Santillan said, and so the person who normally would have double checked the tax roll did not.
“It was a missing piece, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure that when there are missing pieces, that we’re able to replace that with more oversight,” Santillan said.
The city has since updated its policies to ensure that two and three people are looking at things like this before they are sent off.
Impact on residents
Many residents said they did not want to keep hearing apologies and excuses, and just wanted answers and more accountability from the city. Those at the meeting said that while they were able to pay the increased amount on their second installment, they were concerned for those who may not be able to.
In response to a previous statement about how the $50,000 fee would not be charged to property owners, resident Jennifer Guerra said that the money does come from them because they pay their taxes.
“As stated, you need to work together to make sure this does not happen again,” Guerra said. “Fortunately for me, I’m able to pay this amount, but there are other people that are not. They are thinking, ‘OK, well I have this money, so I’m going to use it for this or that bill,’ but now what are they gonna do?”
Having the full cost of the trash assessment fee be required with the second installment has made it so that property owners have to pay that full amount at once, as opposed to it being spread out and easier to budget.
Residents said that not only does the error mean that some people’s planning was messed up — especially for individuals living on fixed incomes — some people may not know of the issue and may only receive a note from their mortgage lender that their monthly mortgage has gone up in order to pay for the property tax because they did not have enough money in their escrow account.
“That’s where it might hurt, because some people say, ‘I don’t want to pay this extra mortgage payment,’ or ‘I don’t have enough in my escrow account to pay it,’” Councilmember Sarah Guerra said. “And they have to pay it out of pocket, so that’s what you’re going to run into.”
Robertson concluded the discussion with a final apology and a comment that it was then time to move on and learn from the mistake.
“The citizens I’m hearing out there are saying, ‘we don’t want to hear your excuses, we just want to hear what you’re gonna do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,’” Robertson said. “I think that’s where we need to go with this; to make our city even better as a result of this.”