‘A public service’: Berkeley homeowner sues city over alleged property overtaxation

Sam Albillo/Staff

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Homeowner Doug Spindler sued the city of Berkeley on Feb. 2 because of an alleged error in property taxation.

The Orinda resident claims the city owes him thousands of dollars in back taxes, and he is pushing for other Berkeley homeowners to investigate their own tax payments. Spindler argued that the city Finance Department is inaccurately charging parcel taxes by overestimating the size of homes.

“What the city is doing is they’re cheating homeowners,” Spindler said on the Pat Thurston Show, a Bay Area radio talk show.

The city is currently appealing a small claims court decision that ruled in favor of Spindler, finding that the city owed him back a couple thousand dollars.

Like many homes with the first floor elevated off the ground, the contention over taxable square feet centers around a basement in Spindler’s home. He said that because this space is uninhabitable, it should not be taxed by the city.

Regarding why he is suing the city, Spindler said it is “a public service,” but he noted that he is “also doing this out of self-interest because (he wants) to be taxed less.”

Although the small claims court provided a gradual ruling in favor of the homeowner, the city submitted an appeal Aug. 5. The original ruling mandated that the city repay more than $2,000 in damages from overbilling with few repercussions otherwise — the property square footage assessment would have also stayed the same.

Spindler posted about the lawsuit on Berkeley Patch, calling for other Berkeley residents to double-check their tax payments and to inspect “the useable or habitable square footage” of their homes. Along with that, Spindler said he is in contact with the Berkeley Property Owners Association to hold information sessions on potential overcharges.

Encouraging homeowner scrutiny, Spindler said that if the county tax assessor and the city Financial Department square footage numbers do not align, taxes have been unduly collected. According to Alameda County Chief Deputy Assessor Brian Hitomi, however, the parameters for city and county property tax assessments are not necessarily the same.

“The city of Berkeley came up with their definition and they use that, and (Spindler) is arguing with them saying you can’t,” Hitomi said. “They, the plaintiff, are using our records for a purpose they weren’t intended to.”

City staff declined to comment, citing that they cannot speak on ongoing litigation. In a statement read by Thurston on her show, the city of Berkeley contended that the lawsuit holds no sway outside of Spindler’s case.

The appeals hearing will take place Sept. 4.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.