In this and many other cities, politicos are content to treat the assessor's office as if it were the Ministry of Magic. While it generates spectacular amounts of money — some 39 percent of San Francisco's General Fund is filled via funds it collects — it does so by mastering only the most arcane sets of rules and knowledge, and communicating in a jargon so richly complex it is a virtual second language.
Those not speaking this language, but relishing fiscal viability for the city, are content to leave the assessor's office be. After all, it's a confusing place. "I feel like a fairly educated person," said former District 11 moderate supervisoral candidate Ahsha Safai, a onetime director in the office of the mayor. "And I feel like a complete idiot whenever I deal with this tax stuff."
Safai now finds himself in a situation that's confusing in the manner so many transactions coming through the assessor's office are confusing — but is also beguiling in altogether new ways, too. A series of e-mails between office higher-ups regarding the proposed cancellation and reissuing of the tax bill for Safai's Excelsior District home raises red flags about how Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting's office is run.
This unorthodox transaction saved the politically well-connected Safai a bundle — and raised eyebrows among assessor's office staff. "I am very uncomfortable with what you are asking me to do and do not want my ID on this change," veteran Assessor Michael Jine wrote in July 2010 to Matthew Thomas, the office's chief appraiser. "Attempting to manipulate the collection process ... sets a very bad precedent."
Thomas seemed to agree. "I understand your reservations," he wrote back to Jine. "This came from above and will be under my ID."
To grasp the controversy requires a foray into the intricate world of property assessment. Despite the vast wealth generated for the city, it's a matter many ignore due to its tedious nature. And, as well as being boring, it's slow: The assessor's office may take years to reappraise a structure after its sale. That's what happened to Safai. Though he and his wife bought their house in December of 2007, he wasn't presented with a reassessed tax bill until April of 2010. As such, he — and others who had to wait years for a reassessment — owe "escape taxes." This is the difference between the taxes property owners paid on their old assessed values and what they should have paid on the new value.
For property owners, this can be an expensive and maddening development. That's why, when dealing with old escape taxes, taxpayers can enter a state program to pay off the balance over five years, interest-free. Still — as was the case with Safai — when presented with a bill for escape taxes for the current fiscal year, the balance is due by year's end. As the Jine-Thomas e-mails and a sheaf of documents indicate, however, the assessor's office mitigated this situation by simply canceling Safai's tax bill, and then reissuing an identical bill in the next fiscal year — allowing him to qualify for the five-year, interest-free program. This saved Safai from having to scare up some $10,000 in a month's time, or face stiff late fees. A number of staffers familiar with this and other assessors' offices have characterized this transaction as highly unusual.
Jine did not respond to SF Weekly's calls. But, in those 2010 e-mails, he criticized canceling and reissuing a bill "for the same exact amount so that the taxpayer can apply for a payment plan.... If you do it for this taxpayer, then others in similar situations should be treated the same." In a subsequent e-mail, he made his position crystal clear: "I do not want to be involved in this case." Thomas ultimately canceled and reissued the tax bill — and, later, knocked some $400,000 off the assessed taxable value of Safai's home to boot.
Safai has donated to multiple Ting races and served on the host committee for Ting's 2010 mayoral campaign kick-off. Ting supported Safai's run for the Board of Supervisors in 2008. Safai denied, however, that he spoke to Ting about his tax problems, and said he received no favored treatment that he knows of. In fact, he claimed the assessor's office continues to subject him to a Kafkaesque nightmare regarding his property tax bills. "I'm still dealing with it," he said. "I'm walking around with a stack of papers as big as a dictionary."
Ting denies having spoken with Safai as well. Asked whose decision it was to cancel and reissue the bill, the assessor said it was Thomas' call. "I hire staff to make those administrative decisions." When then queried what Thomas, the office's No. 2 man, meant by "this came from above," Ting had no answer.
Neither did Thomas. "I wrote that a couple of years ago," he said, "so, thinking back, I'm not 100 percent sure." When asked who was above him within the office — or the city — who would push him to write "this came from above," he replied "most any constituent."
When asked, again, if "most any constituent" could induce him to override a veteran colleague's detailed objections to a controversial practice, and justify the procedure with the statement "this came from above," Thomas added, "Thinking back, it was not a direct reference to any one person in particular."
Perhaps the assessor's office really is the Ministry of Magic.