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Californians Face Tax Deadlines After Devastating Fires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This weekend marked one month since the Camp Fire ignited, wiping out entire towns in Butte County, Calif. And today in Butte County, it's tax day. Property taxes are due. Many homeowners who lost their homes in the fire are scrambling to defer tax payments while their properties are reassessed. A lot of those properties are now just plots of land. From member station KQED, Lily Jamali has more.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Paradise resident Debbie Martin and her husband, Bill, were preparing to celebrate three decades together when the Camp Fire burned their house to the ground.

DEBBIE MARTIN: This is our 30-year anniversary this month, and it's like, wow, happy anniversary. We're starting over. So...

JAMALI: So while many here have been allowed back in to survey the damage, the Martins haven't. The house they called home for 26 years was in Zone 6, which authorities haven't yet opened up to residents. The Martins don't know if there's anything left, but they do know this.

MARTIN: It will no longer have the value that it once did, you know? There's no standing home. The property is there, and that's worth something. But there is no house, so it needs reassessed so that we will be paying less property tax.

JAMALI: The county assessor's office has been busy fielding requests from fire victims like the Martins coming by to get their properties revalued so that they're only paying taxes on the land and not on homes that no longer exist. Debbie Martin isn't sure what the assessment will find for her and her husband.

MARTIN: We don't know for sure. I don't know if it's 30,000, 50,000. We're not sure what because of the devastation up there, you know? It's definitely gone down (laughter).

JAMALI: All told, the Butte County Assessor's Office says 18,000 structures were lost. Fewer properties means less property tax revenue for the county to fund agencies like the sheriff's office and the fire department which provided vital services during the Camp Fire and its aftermath. The county has already projected a hit of up to $6 million to the hundred-million-dollar discretionary fund that pays for agencies including those. And it's not just property taxes. The county stands to lose additional revenue from sales taxes, among others.

MEEGAN JESSIE: For a county of our size, that is a lot of money.

JAMALI: Meegan Jessie is Butte county's budget director.

JESSIE: In our last budget, we actually had to close a fire station. We have reduced hours at our library. And so there is not room to make those sorts of reductions without them being painful.

JAMALI: Local Assemblyman James Gallagher just introduced legislation in Sacramento that would help the county replace that lost tax revenue.

JAMES GALLAGHER: For right now, we are trying to get something over the next three years 'cause it is going to take some time to cover a more extended period.

JAMALI: Some of that could come from emergency funds set aside for catastrophes like the Camp Fire. But Assemblyman Gallagher says that probably won't be enough. The rest will have to be included in the next state budget. Many of the Paradise homeowners were retirement age like the Martins. Rebuilding at this point isn't all that appealing. Debbie Martin isn't confident that finally seeing what's left of her home will change that sentiment.

MARTIN: Looking at what we've seen, it will never be the same. And I just - I don't know how many people realistically will rebuild. I just - I don't know. It was a special community (laughter).

JAMALI: A community that will certainly be smaller in a county already struggling to pay its bills. For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in Butte County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.