District shares blame in $7 million property tax bill error

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

After hearing from staff how the district was not blameless in the property tax bill error discovered last October, the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Trustees voted 4-1 at the May 1 board meeting to pay $80,000 to the county of San Diego for partial reimbursement of expenses associated with correcting the mistake.

Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, said he has met regularly for the past six months with Treasurer/Tax Collector Dan McAllister, the county’s chief administrative officer, the county auditor/controller, and other county staff, to sort out how to fix the problem.

After the dust settled, costs for the fix were tallied up, and the county reported a final figure of about $183,000. Dill said the county asked the district to pay half.

“The compromise that we struck with them was that we would cover the costs of the printing and the mailing, but all of their system-related costs – they had to contract out for that stuff – we would want them to cover that,” Dill said in an interview April 30. “In the end what we agreed on was a flat $80,000.”

San Dieguito’s $449 million general obligation bond, which passed by a narrow margin last fall, called for a maximum tax of $25 per $100,000 in property value. But the original tax bill issued by McAllister’s office assessed $37.50 per $100,000.

The error on the original property tax bill, mailed last fall, was first discovered and reported by this newspaper on Oct. 24.

After alerting the district to the mistake, I spoke with Tracy Sandoval, auditor/controller for the county whose department is separate from McAllister’s. She initially blamed the school district for the error, and the next day the school district fired back, blaming the county.

Today, both the county and the school district accept some blame for what happened.

“We’ve done a really good job of not pointing fingers at each other since that first day,” Dill said. “We all have a little bit of this so we’re accepting joint responsibility.”

After those first few days when both agencies were trying to understand how an unprecedented and potentially far-reaching mistake like this could have happened, the finger-pointing ended and all parties agreed to sit down together and sort out the problems and identify both short- and long-term solutions.

McAllister worked to bring the county and school district together to find a way to resolve the problem quickly. “I think we wrapped it up pretty fast, relative to [what] could have happened,” he said.

The itemized statement from the county to the district showed a total cost of $183,372. The district’s flat fee of $80,000 was for $35,600 for printing and postage for letters mailed to property owners that explained the error, $7,400 to process refunds to taxpayers who had already paid the full amount based on the incorrect tax bills, and $38,100 for printing and postage of new and corrected tax bills.

The county agreed to pay the remaining amount – about $103,000 – primarily to outside vendors for software programming and information technology.

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