Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Long Lines and Cursive Ledgers
Yesterday morning, combining civic duty and business, I drove to the county courthouse in Santa Cruz. It was the day property tax was due, so I figured I’d pay in person then see what my money was getting me by sauntering over to the superior court clerk’s office to research a legal matter in connection with a project I’m working on.
Most years I pay my property tax in person. It makes it seem more like a civic gesture than an anonymous sendoff of money, and it can be a social occasion as well. More often than not I run into someone I know, either in line or because they’re doing other business of their own at the county offices.
Last year I went a day before the payment deadline and there was hardly any line at all. I wrote about it at the time, wondering if tax paying had become one of those civic rituals, like waiting for election returns, that has become privatized. I was worrying for nothing.
Counting Out the Hundreds
When I arrived a little after 11 a.m., the line was out the door of the tax collector’s office, extending to the door to the county building itself, nearly a hundred feet away. It took 40 minutes to get to the window, and when I reached the door to the office it became obvious what part of the problem was.
Several of the people ahead of me were paying their property tax in cash. Why anyone but a drug dealer would do that, I can’t imagine, but even in this county it’s hard to imagine that there are that many property-owning drug dealers, so I guess they had their reasons.
In any event, two payment windows were open, and only one of them accepted cash payments. People were taking a fistful of hundreds out of an envelope, counting them out, handing them over, then waiting while the clerk counted the money again and made change. Tax bills here aren’t rounded up to an even number, so the clerk had to count out a lot of dollar bills and coins.
Me, I handed over the bill and a check for the exact amount, got a receipt and was off the window a minute after I arrived. Then I walked around the corner to the civil division of superior court, where the line was considerably shorter.
For a historical research project, I was trying to find out how often a local businessman had been in court between 1921 and 1932, either suing someone or being sued. I had no idea whether it would be possible to get the information without a ridiculous amount of going through files, but figured I should ask.
As it turned out, they had a system for that. For years the county had kept alphabetical ledgers of all the parties in lawsuits, the names written out in beautiful cursive. They were on microfiche , and I was able to check out the period in question in less than an hour.
There was no big story; he was the defendant in one suit for an unpaid bill (they were able to retrieve a microfilm of the original filing) of $781. Nothing much in itself, nor did it appear to be part of a pattern, but it ruled out a possible angle, and that’s a big part of research as well. The two women at the desk were extremely pleasant and helpful, and I left feeling that the check I’d just handed in around the corner was actually paying for something tangible. Not a bad feeling in the age of The Cloud.