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#ShowUsYourMailers: Dueling Ads Over Tax Breaks In San Diego Assessor Race

A campaign ad for San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk candidate Matt Str...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: A campaign ad for San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk candidate Matt Strabone, June 2, 2018.

Subscribers to The San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday got something extra with their paper: a campaign ad for Matt Strabone, who's running to be the San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk.

The job involves deciding how much property tax everyone pays, storing the county's public land records and issuing marriage licenses and birth certificates.

RELATED: An Obscure Race: Meet The Candidates Running For San Diego County Assessor

Strabone's ad focuses on one specific part of the job. "I will give 150,000 more homeowners in San Diego County a property tax break," it says.

Strabone told KPBS those homeowners don't know they could get a tax break called the Homeowners' Exemption.

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

"Now the reason why these 150,000 folks don't know about this exemption is because the assessor has never told them it exists," he said. "So my plan is to find these people where they are. Improve public outreach. Reach out to them, let them know they're eligible for this. Give them the form and ensure that these folks are no longer overpaying on their property taxes."

Ernie Dronenburg, the current assessor/recorder/clerk, said not everyone who owns a home qualifies for the exemption.

"Mr. Strabone is operating from bad data," he wrote in an email to KPBS. "He reported he calculated the 150,000 number by looking at outdated 2016 population census information (that is survey data and not hard numbers). Moreover, his erroneous estimate came from taking the census reported number of homeowners and deducting the number of homeowner exemptions my office reported to the State Board of Equalization in 2016."

For example, Dronenburg said, Strabone's number should not include people who received a Disabled Veteran’s Exemption. When KPBS questioned Strabone about this, he said between 5,000 and 6,000 homeowners claim this exemption, so he actually would hope to help 142,000, not 150,000 people.

Dronenburg also said his office aims to inform people about the tax break.

"As a safeguard periodically we go back and ask these people a second time, are you sure you're not qualified?" he said. "We do a mailing. Actually, that mailing went out this month to people again and there was about 100,000 people that we have in our files that haven't applied. We believe that maybe 15 maybe 20 percent of those people may be entitled and they just haven't done it."

Photo credit: Matt Strabone

A letter sent out by the San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk's office informing people about a homeowners' tax exemption.

Strabone recently filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission about this mailing, because California law prevents state or local officeholders from sending official mass mail at government expense to constituents within 60 days of an election. But, he said the FPPC informed him that the letter Dronenburg's office sent is exempt because it meets this guideline:

"Any item sent by an agency responsible for administering a government program, to persons subject to that program, in any instance in which the mailing of the item is essential to the functioning of the program, the item does not include the elected officer’s photograph, and use of the elected officer’s name, office, title, or signature is necessary to the functioning of the program."

Strabone told KPBS he disagrees with the decision "because using Dronenburg's name on the mailer is not necessary to the functioning of the program, and further because if this were a regularly-administered program, it would be mailed annually, but I can find no evidence that Dronenburg has sent this mailing at any point in the last three years."

Dronenburg told KPBS that his office "sends out tens of thousands of homeowners’ exemption applications on a monthly basis to every new residential property owner."

Dronenburg also sent out his own mailer claiming he helped 490,392 taxpayers qualify for exemptions. He told KPBS that number comes from the 483,293 taxpayers his office qualified for the homeowner’s exemption in the 2017-2018 tax year, plus 7,000 disabled veterans he qualified for the disabled veteran property tax exemption.

Because only two people are running for the assessor/recorder/clerk seat, it is extremely likely the winner will be decided in Tuesday's election, unless they tie.

Photo by Claire Trageser

A campaign mailer from San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk Ernie Dronenburg, May 17, 2018.

Subscribers to The San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday got something extra with their paper: a campaign ad for Matt Strabone, who's running to be the county assessor/recorder/clerk.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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