How a snafu — and rebate – on Santa Clara County property taxes brought a community together
Homeowners rarely jump for joy when they hear from the County assessor, the guy responsible for calculating how much they’ll have to pay in Santa Clara County property taxes.
But Erin Cerdan was ecstatic when Assessor Larry Stone made a personal visit to her Gilroy home a few years back. In his hand was a big, fat government check for about $30,000, made out in her name by the government of the County of Santa Clara.
That’s why she was happy Stone stopped by her place again just recently. They reminisced about how Stone and other parts of County government made up for mistakenly overcharging her and hundreds of neighbors on their property taxes.
In some cases, they had overpaid for 20 years, through no fault of the County. The Assessor’s Office was never told that, as owners of below-market-rate houses, the neighbors were due a tax break. That was never calculated into their annual property tax bills.
Answer to prayer
It was Cerdan who uncovered the error when her mortgage shot up after the housing crisis eased. Her persistence led to rebates totaling $4 million — the overpayments plus interest.
“It was a big answer to prayer because there is no way we would have been able to afford the jump in what we were going to have to pay,” Cerdan told Stone as they sat at her kitchen table.
“It just turned our life around to where we didn’t have to worry. … It’s life-changing.”
Cerdan hasn’t been living on easy street since getting the rebate, Stone learned. In fact, she’s out of work right now. And she had to pay a big chunk of the rebate to Uncle Sam. But at least she’s almost completely debt-free, and her husband has been able to quit his second job.
One of the women who helped get Cerdan’s campaign to recover the money was office worker Yvette Salcedo, a mother of five.
Facing tough times
In a recent interview at Cerdan’s house, Salcedo recalled she had been at the point of having to make a grim choice because of the mistake on the Santa Clara County property taxes. She could buy groceries or pay the mortgage. The rebate, which arrived on Christmas Eve 2015, was a huge relief for her, too.
Salcedo used her rebate to buy a used car; pay off debt; send a son on a middle-school trip to Washington and New York; bought a headstone for a deceased relative; and attended her son’s graduation from boot camp on the East Coast.
Now, Cerdan and her neighbors credit Stone, the Assessor’s Office, and other County officials with working hard to make things right. So much for the adage that you can’t fight city hall!
As angry as some people were when the mistake was uncovered, it turns out to have brought the whole neighborhood even closer together. And not a single lawyer got involved on the taxpayers’ behalf, Stone noted.
“Lemons into lemonade,” Stone said, marveling at how it all turned out. “Overassess somebody, and they end up happy at the end of the day!”