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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: City needs to return illegally collected transfer taxes

The following is a copy of remarks made to the City Council on July 21,2003:

Since the last Council meeting there have been a number of articles in the West County Times and the El Cerrito Journal concerning the El Cerrito Property Transfer Tax. For the benefit of residents who may not know about this tax, this tax is assessed by the City when homes or businesses change ownership. The tax rate is .7% of sale price, so for example on a $500,000 home it amounts to a substantial amount of $3500. The El Cerrito Citizen’s Alliance pointed out, starting with the May 5 Council meeting, that this tax was illegal if applied after June 2001. If residents bought or sold a home within the last year, check your escrow papers to see whether you or the other party paid all or part of this tax, and if appropriate go to City Hall and pickup a claim form to file for refund of your share of said tax. You may also want to contact your attorney or realtor for help or to see if sales before the City’s one year statute of limitations (curiously modified after June 2001) are challengeable.

The article in the paper correctly quoted me as saying “If staff or Council was aware of the status of this tax after June 2001 and before May 5, 2003 when the El Cerrito Citizens’ Alliance raised this issue, then continuing to collect this tax amounts to theft from those who were forced to pay it”. Unfortunately, Council member Abelson is also quoted as saying that the “Citizens’ Alliance’s criticisms were politically motivated”.

Apparently Council member Abelson has difficulty grasping the ethical and moral issues we raised. Let me simplify them for her and other Council members’ benefit.

If City police chief Kirkland caught a ring of thieves, who had been stealing from El Cerrito citizens for a number of years, no-one would consider their capture politically motivated! Certainly the thieves would not have the gall to claim (as Ms. Abelson did) that they should have been “thanked” for stopping and that should be the end of it. No, Ms Abelson, one would expect the thieves to fully return what they stole and at the very least publicly apologize to the victims.

Yet the City and Council, who stole by collecting the illegal Transfer tax for a number of years, refuse to return the majority of their ill begotten gains by limiting claims to 1 year. You have also failed to publicly apologize.

At the last Council meeting the Alliance raised the following unmet policy and ethical issues

1, Each member of Council should state tonight whether they knew about the suspect status of this tax before the May 5, 2003 or not. If they knew they should explain why they failed to act.

2, Instruct the City Attorney to undertake an investigation to see if any other taxes are also suspect and report to Council by their next meeting to terminate those taxes as well. This is particularly relevant since according to the articles in the paper, the Utility User’s Tax is also illegal. If so Council should stop that ongoing theft.

Now for the financial issues:

In order to make the taxpayers, the victims of the theft, whole, the City and Council should:

1, Refund any monies collected after June 2001 under the auspices of the transfer tax.

2, Advertise in the paper that people are entitled to file a claim for a refund.

3, Make a good faith effort (by contacting the County) to find out which properties have changed hands since June 2001, and attempt to contact current and previous owners to inform them that they should file a claim for a refund.

4, Staff should help citizens fill out the claim form and inform them as to what documents need to be filed.

Council has it well within its power to pass an ordinance to fully honor the claims of those who fall outside of the one-year claim limit and thereby set things right. It is the correct, ethical and honest thing to do; anything less is a perpetuation of the thieving ways the City and Council has behaved since the tax became illegal in June 2001.

Steve Magyary
Coordinator of the El Cerrito Citizens’ Alliance

Run dates: 2003-07-25 - 2003-08-14

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