Thursday, January 13, 2011
Tuesday, January 13, 1981
The biggest job I ever tackled was when I built my own house. My wife and I bought a solid little 600-square-foot cabin on a quarter-acre in La Honda. We wrapped an addition around the cabin, creating a house of 2000 square feet, and I'm proud of it.
We had the final inspection, we're signed off. Today, the tax assessor comes out to take a look. Let's call him Earl.
When Earl knocks on my door, he says, "Before I assess your house, come on out to my car for a minute. I want to show you something."
There's nothing slick about Earl. He wears a loosened tie, no jacket, sleeves rolled up. At the car he pulls out a tax assessment list for La Honda. He points to some entries. "See this lot? One acre, kinda hilly but you could build a nice house there. The assessment is forty thousand dollars. Then here, look at this. I rated this one myself. Also one acre, almost level, horse property, lots of sunshine, great view, fit for a king, and the assessment last year was for ten thousand." Earl shakes his head. "A bit of variation, wouldn't you say?"
"Yep," I say.
"Okay, let's take a look at your house."
He walks through the interior talking about how he could give us a break on one thing or another, like counting that unfinished half bathroom as a storage closet, and then he says, "Come on back to the car."
He gets into the driver's seat. Reaching across, he opens the passenger door, then brushes some hamburger wrappers onto the floor. "Come on in," he says.
I sit inside.
"Close the door," he says.
I close the door.
"Well?" he says.
It's pretty clear that this is the moment when I'm supposed to hand him a bribe. Or is this a trap? I'd always heard that government in California was clean, not like Chicago. I've never heard a word about scandal in San Mateo County. But here he is. Here I am.
"Uh, thanks for looking at my house," I say, and I get out of the car.
Earl drives away.
In the mail I receive my new tax assessment, and it is definitely on the high side.
Thirty years later, it still rankles me. I don't mind paying my fair share, and yet… If I'd slipped him a few twenties, how many thousands of dollars would I have saved over the years? And how many of my neighbors took advantage of what he was offering?