inewsource spent the past five months working on a new and improved interactive allowing property owners in San Diego County to look up how much they’re paying in a little-known property tax called Mello-Roos. Why? Because four years ago, inewsource did the same thing and found homeowners overpaying by hundreds or thousands of dollars.
But there were problems with the old map: it took around 45 seconds to load, for one, yet was still so popular that the web traffic frequently crashed inewsource’s servers to the point where upkeep was untenable. By contracting with a web developer and programmer — along with heavy data lifting and cleaning — inewsource was able to resurrect that map this month. It includes a full five years of data in a clean, mobile-friendly format that loads in under two seconds and gives granular information about which Community Facilities Districts homeowners pay into.
It was a monumental undertaking. There are more than a million parcels in San Diego County, and not all pay Mello-Roos taxes.
“The biggest challenge was cleaning up the parcel shapefiles and then merging those with the actual data of assessments behind them,” said Brandon Quester, inewsource’s Director of Data and Visuals, who joined the team in January and led the effort to create the new map. “It took a lot of time to do that.”
The goal for the initial rollout was simply releasing the map and publishing an overview with big-picture numbers. The map was the big news.
In the first series on Mello-Roos several years ago, inewsource zeroed in on the Poway Unified School District and how it collects and spends the special tax. This time, the focus was South County, which has seen massive growth over the past two decades.
Reporter Leonardo Castañeda dove into how the Sweetwater Union High School District was spending Mello-Roos tax revenue. Castañeda was joined by inewsource investigative assistant Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, who requested records about a controversial program to buy iPads for 7th graders. She found 90 percent of iPads purchased in 2012 had been damaged, lost or stolen.
inewsource reported on the iPads purchase five years ago, when parents were in an uproar and the district’s superintendent defended the purchase by saying the tablets “should take students from 7th through 12th grade” and will eventually replace textbooks. Mello-Roos taxes are to be spent only on items that have a shelf life of at least five years.
What made this recent story unique, Castaneda said, “was going back and seeing if what parents and community members expected had become reality.”
“It’s imperative to hold government officials and politicians accountable for things they said were going to happen and to see if they actually happened,” Castañeda said.
inewsource will continue digging into how and where Mello-Roos taxes are being spent. Since we can’t look into every district in the county, we need the public to look within their communities.
“Certainly there will be stories that we hope will come up from the public looking through and identifying things we might not be able to see,” Quester said.
If you find something unusual in your district, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.