County subdivisions, commercial development grow by more than $1 bil.

By C.J. Barbre

Tulare County Assessor and Clerk-Recorder Gregory Hardcastle is the man with his finger on the pulse of county growth and property values.

"I'm the guy to take inventory of all property on Jan. 1 each year, identify if it is taxable, its value and pass the information on to the county auditor," Hardcastle said during a recent discussion.

As County Clerk and Recorder Hardcastle is the guardian of public records including birth, death and marriage records. "It's a very responsible position, I wear three hats," he said.

Hardcastle has a $7 million budget, 4,863 square miles of property assessed at $18.2 billion which comes to about $180 million in property taxes to be collected and apportioned out. Of that he said 62 percent goes to schools, 16 percent to the county, 18 percent to cities and 2 percent to special items. Hardcastle said the $18.2 billion is an increase of more than a billion dollars this year which he attributed to new subdivisions and commercial development.

"Tulare County has been discovered as a place of affordable housing. People are working three jobs to pay the rent in other counties. Here they can buy a home." He said growth can't be stopped, adding that, "For people in real estate sales it has been a banner time for the last year and a half with a short supply of inventory."

Hardcastle said the $18.2 billion in new development included 97,000 single family residences and 5,500 commercial establishments plus agricultural development. He said his office also values airplanes, boats, business and personal property and 41 water companies, "a tremendous workload." Hardcastle said deed recordings were up 20 percent in the last year.

Nonetheless, he said Tulare County is at the bottom of the food chain for education revenue augmentation funds (ERAF). "We're hoping in the long run to keep property taxes in Tulare County," he said. In the short run Governor Schwarzenegger has asked the counties to pony up. The biggest spending reductions of the new budget are going to be made in funding for cities, counties and local schools, which are supposed to be temporary. The cities and counties are getting $2.6 billion in cuts over the next two years, on condition that the state not "borrow" from cities and counties more than twice in 10 years subject to a two-thirds vote of the legislature.

"I'm real grateful for a really good Board of Supervisors. We're really lucky to have [District 1 Supervisor] Bill Sanders who is very astute. The whole board has it tough and makes tough decisions and they do a really good job," Hardcastle said. He said because of the board's conservative approach, Tulare County is "not in the doldrums of other counties." He said there are 66 new subdivisions in the county, some with as many as 1,000 homes.

Hardcastle said rents are strong. He said a lot of people are buying three homes for their finances to pencil out. "We did 14,000 reappraisals this year of sold properties and 6,000 new appraisals. We have 136,000 parcels. Over 48,000 had activities, changed ownership or whatever." He said in the first four months of 2004, new unit starts in Porterville, Tulare and Visalia were up 23 percent over last year. He said non-residential development is up 18 percent.

Hardcastle's duties as county recorder also put him in contact with identity theft "a big, hot topic." He said California is an open record state. "Until last July you could get a certified copy of my birth certificate. Now you must have proof." He said it has been a tremendous amount of work to comply with new laws regarding identity theft. "I can't believe how much of this stuff is going on." He said his department has been involved with immigration out of San Francisco. He said identity theft is a "high tech industry. You can get anybody's Social Security number if you know where to look. People want privacy but haven't been able to obtain privacy," all of which ties into home ownership.

Hardcastle said a lot of good has come out of the assessors office such as legislative changes. "There are some real advantages to passing your property to your children." He said property up to $1 million in value can be willed to one's children without triggering reappraisal, per Proposition 58.

He said a lot of people are unaware of the Proposition 60 exclusion where people more than 55 years of age can sell their home and buy a new home of equal or lesser value and transfer the value of their Prop. 13 home. "I'm just amazed at the number of people unaware of this." He said his office is ready to assist at no cost.

Hardcastle had some handouts including a booklet, "Information for the Tulare County Property Owner," which can also be downloaded from their website at www.co.tulare.ca.us then connecting to the County Assessor site. "We're very public-friendly and want to help. We want change, to ease the permitting process and encourage commercial development. We're broke but not broken."

Hardcastle closed by taking questions from the audience. He said the median price of a home in Tulare County is $174,000, up from $123,000 a couple of years ago. Before this story went to press, there was another news report that median home prices in the county had jumped to the 190s.

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