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RISMEDIA, December 8, 2009—(MCT)—Jose Olivas of Watsonville dropped off his check for property taxes Friday. Like many in the county, he owed less tax this year than last.

“I’m taking a cut in pay now, so this helps,” said Olivas, a program manager at UC Santa Cruz where temporary work furloughs began this fall.

“But the lower tax bill is a two-sided coin,” he said. “I’m not happy that the value of my home has gone down.”

Over the past two years, roughly 18,000 Santa Cruz County properties have been assigned a lower value by the Assessor’s Office. That means less burden for residents when the first installment of their property taxes comes due Thursday, but also a slip in their home equity.

The trend toward declining home values may not continue, though. The number of people appealing their home’s assessed value, an indicator of market sentiment, is down from last year, suggesting a renewed confidence in real estate, says county Assessor-Recorder Sean Saldavia.

“I’m hopeful we’ve hit a bottom in the residential market. I think this is reflective of that,” he said.

While last year nearly 1,000 people protested their property’s assessment before the county Assessment Appeals Board — a number that forced county leaders to double the number of people reviewing appeals — this year about 600 appeals were lodged. The deadline to appeal was Nov. 30.

The review board grants only a small fraction of the appeals it receives. Most of the lower property assessments seen in the last two years are done proactively by the Assessor’s Office, which is required to reassess properties when the market slides.

For property owners whose tax bill hasn’t come down with the real estate market, relief is in store next year because of deflation.

The California Board of Equalization said last week the economy was such that the state wouldn’t be able to justify its annual 2 percent cost-of-living property tax hike. In fact, the board projected that deflation would reduce what people owe by 0.237 percent next year.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” said Summit resident Heidi Houdlette, who settled up her property taxes at the Tax Collector’s Office on Friday and said she’s never seen her bill go down.

A cut in property taxes statewide, due to deflation, would mark a first since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that established an inflationary cap on tax bills.

While good for taxpayers, the move would mean another year of leaner revenue for the county, cities and schools.

“Even when you have a small decline, it’s significant,” said Mary Jo Walker, auditor-controller for the county.

The money local governments collect in property taxes is discretionary income, Walker noted, meaning it can be used for whatever local leaders see as fit and traditionally has gone mostly to public safety.

This year’s property tax collections — for the roughly 96,000 countywide properties, valued at $33 billion cumulatively — are expected to be 3 percent less than last year’s.

Watsonville, where property values have fallen the most, will record the biggest loss in property tax revenue, about 11.1 percent. Scotts Valley will see a drop of 2.8 percent, while Santa Cruz and Capitola will see revenues remain relatively flat. The county’s unincorporated area will record a 2.9 percent decline.

Copyright (c) 2009, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.