Editor’s Notes

Pub date June 4, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

I think it’s safe to say that most people in the real estate business tend to oppose raising taxes on real estate. And generally speaking, you don’t find the industry well represented at dinners for urban environmental groups. But John Barry is different. He’s a Sunset District Realtor who is full of ideas about how to get the city more revenue, and after I ran into him at the San Francisco Tomorrow dinner May 21, he sent me a proposal he says would bring in more than $5 million a year.

Barry was digging around in property records recently and learned that a parcel out on 19th Avenue sold a year ago, in June 2007, for $2.5 million — and the new owners still hadn’t received a property tax bill. The owner "most likely won’t be getting the bill until July or later," Barry wrote. "He will then have another 30 to 90 days to come up with his payment."

Although the city will eventually get the money, the late property tax bill means that cash is sitting in a property owner’s bank account, earning interest that ought to go to the city. At the current tax rate of 1.141 percent of market value, which is typically the sale price, the lost interest on this one property is about $2,800. Multiply that times all the commercial and residential sales in the city, and Barry estimates San Francisco is losing some $5 million in interest every single year.

"Who is to blame? All of us," he wrote. "If taxpayers had been raising a fuss, the city would have found ways to do this all quicker."

When property changes hands, it typically goes through a title company and an escrow procedure and, at closing, a bunch of money changes hands. The buyer pays a whole list of fees — to the title company, the broker, the mortgage company, etc. Why can’t the city be in the mix?

Here’s how it could work, Barry suggests: "The title company calls the tax collector and says, ‘We are closing a sale in two days. The sale price is $1 million. Send us an interim estimated tax bill.’ The tax collector multiplies .01141 [the property tax rate] against $1 million and instantly prints an interim bill of $11,410 and e-mails it to the escrow officer."

Makes sense to me.

So the day I got Barry’s e-mail, I called Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and left him a message saying I’d found him $5 million. He called back right away. I ran Barry’s idea by him, and he told me it was worth pursuing.

It’s a bit more complicated than it seems, he said, particularly with commercial property — which is where the big money is, anyway. In many cases the city doesn’t accept the sales prices as the actual value, and under Proposition 13, you can’t raise a tax bill once you set it. But I have great faith that City Attorney’s Office can figure a way around that.

Of course, Ting has another problem: he doesn’t have the staff to catch up on the existing backlog — and Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to cut his budget. "Nobody wants to stand up and fight to fund the tax man," he told me. That, of course, is lunacy. If you’re short of money, you don’t cut the folks who are bringing it in.

It’s hard to talk about taxing anyone, even in San Francisco. "I write this," Barry said, "because I am a founding member of the How a Realtor Can Commit Professional Suicide Club." But you know he’s right.