May 17, 2007

S.B. County supervisor's tax-rolls explanation doesn't hold water

Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt's proposed policy to put tax-defaulted properties back on the tax rolls is really a thinly veiled attempt to thwart conservation groups from expanding parkland in the desert.

Conservancies and other nonprofits under state law have gotten first crack at buying properties the county sells when owners fail for at least five years to pay property taxes.

Conservation groups have bought up nearly 750,000 acres in the desert this way and turned the land over to the federal government to be added to the Mojave National Preserve, held as wilderness or habitat mitigation.

Mitzelfelt says this deprived the county of tax base and prevented competitive bidding by private parties at tax-sale auctions.

He acknowledges these remote, vacant parcels would bring in only a few hundred dollars in property taxes each year, but he insists it would be better to keep the land in private hands.

If keeping property on the tax rolls is so important, why has the county recently purchased two multimillion-dollar properties with large, existing buildings on them, far more valuable than desert land?

In 2005, the county bought the former state office building catty-corner from the San Bernardino Courthouse from private investors for $23 million.

The investors wanted to lease it to the county, and they would have continued paying property taxes. But the county decided to buy it outright, thus removing it from the tax rolls.

Same with the Adelanto private prison. The county was going to lease it from the owner to use as a High Desert county jail but decided in 2005 to buy it for $31 million instead, taking it off the tax rolls.

Mitzelfelt said buying those buildings was good public policy because the county now has equity in the properties and can sell them later.

But the county is going to stay in those buildings a good long time, meaning they're off the tax rolls for many years into the future, as Mitzelfelt himself acknowledged when I asked.

So this is really about the Desert Protection Act, which created the Mojave Preserve in 1994.

A former Building Industry Association official, Mitzelfelt told me he opposed the act because it jeopardized the future of mining, put large swaths of land off-limits to cattle-grazing and public uses and was "overall a detriment to the (county's) economy."

Mitzelfelt's proposed policy was on the Board of Supervisors' agenda Tuesday, but the board put off action on it until June 5 to give his fellow supervisors a chance to figure out whether they think it's a good idea.

I hope they think carefully before putting sole authority over selling off vacant parcels larger than 20,000 square feet -- less than half an acre -- in the hands of the supervisor whose district the land is in.

Mitzelfelt and his predecessor as First District supervisor have been holding up the sales of tax-defaulted land in the High Desert for five years while this policy was being drafted.

Why did it take so long? It wasn't on the front burner, Mitzelfelt said.

Meanwhile, conservation groups including the Yucaipa-based Wildlands Conservancy and Mojave Desert Land Trust are being held at bay on 141 parcels they want to buy.

Their wait isn't over yet.