Saturday, February 20, 2010

The antonym of cubicle

I value being able to look out my office window and see pieces of the river in winter, and trees amidst the houses, and squirrels, and occasional large birds, but my office is nothing like this:

Maybe if every object on my desk blocked my view of the outdoors, I’d keep my desk less cluttered.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

City Hall: “This conversation is over”

Back in 2006, we changed some aspects of our house: we tore down a shed, removed an enclosed porch, and added a deck. This was all done with a building permit, and I thought that the building department would tell the assessor’s office what changes had been made. That never happened.

So this year I filed an application for abatement to get those changes entered. I asked them to remove the charge for the shed we tore down, remove the charge for the back enclosed porch we took off, and add a charge for the new wood deck we built. I wasn’t sure how it would all balance out, since I didn't know how they valued enclosed porches and decks, but I wanted the official record of our house to at least show the outline of our house correctly.

Turns out they were willing to do all of that, even though they refused to answer questions before, during, or after the process. And the net result lowers our property tax bill slightly, so that’s ok. But the last thing that I asked them about on the application, the chimney that is listed as a bonus item on our property, was apparently one item too many to even ask about.

Almost every house on our street has a chimney. Some have more than one. But we’re the only ones who get charged extra for a chimney. Since property taxes are supposed to be assessed fairly, I think we shouldn’t be charged extra if nobody else is charged extra. But according to the assessor’s office, my view is ludicrous. So ludicrous that they refuse to actually respond to my request or any more questions. I apparently exceeded my secret allotment of questions. “This conversation,” I was told, “is over.”

It turns out that it’s possible to gather more information by the simple expedient of continuing to converse. I learned that they can print out a property card that has far more information than the version available on-line. A finished enclosed porch is worth $60.43 per square foot, a wood deck is worth $8.81 per square foot, unfinished attic space is worth $8.63 per square foot, unfinished basement space is worth $17.27 per square foot, and regular living space is worth $86.33 per square foot. We may have a mixed use occupancy certificate. They pull information from MLS listings when a house is listed for sale, even though those listings are frequently exaggerated or simply wrong. They have no idea how to do a basic count from their own database of how many properties have a particular feature. They charge for printing out listings, but they don’t know how much they charge and there isn’t actually a way to request those printouts. And they really, truly, deeply despise homeowners. Almost as much as they despise answering the phone.

But I still don’t know why my street address changes at random from 11 to 13. Or why they changed Lisa’s last name in their records, or how to change it back. And I still don’t know why my chimney is worth $2600 more than anyone else’s chimney, or why it’s worth $700 more than it was last year. Perhaps there’s a silver lining. In my chimney.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A friendly elephant seal

Our time at the elephant seal rookery near San Simeon, CA last January was amazing, but we couldn’t get quite this close: