Show Me The Money! - NBC Southern California

Show Me The Money!

Millions in unclaimed cash owed to local governments

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    In these tough economic times, many local governments are raising your taxes, and cutting services. So you'd think they'd want every dollar they could get their hands on.

    Imagine if Los Angeles County could hire 10 new sheriff's deputies. Imagine If the LA school district could buy 200 new computers for its students. What if public libraries could buy thousands of new books?

    The Colton Public Library in San Bernardino County didn't know it had money owed to it, until we told the library manager, Ruth Martinez.

    "Did you know you had $9,000 coming to you?" Investigative Reporter Joel Grover asked Martinez.

    "No. Let me tell you, we were shocked," Martinez replied.

    Unclaimed Property

    [LA] Unclaimed Property
    Joel grover reports on millions of dollars in unclaimed cash owed to local governments.
    (Published Wednesday, May 20, 2009)

    We found millions of dollars that's owed to local governments when we did a thorough analysis of the state's unclaimed property database.

    This is where the state keeps $5 billion owed to people or businesses, by banks, insurance companies, and others, who supposedly can't locate the owners of the money.

    We found cash owed to many businesses like FedEx, and to millions of citizens, including NBCLA weatherman Fritz Coleman. We also found a lot of money that local governments haven't claimed, like $636,000 to LA County and $171,000 to Riverside County.

    "If we could save a few jobs, you bet, we'll go after that money," says Don Kent, Riverside County Treasurer.

    "This is big money, particularly these days when every dollar counts," says Bob Stern, with the Center for Governmental Studies.

    "How many police, how many firemen, how many roads could be fixed with this amount of money?" Stern says.

    So why don't local governments know about the cash? They should.

    Two years ago, the law was changed, allowing the state controller to reach out and notify people who have unclaimed property.

    "My office actively wants to return the people's money, because it's their money," says California State Controller John Chiang.

    Chiang says his office notifies thousands of citizens that they have unclaimed money. But does he contact local governments?

    "We send out notices, and then I speak at a lot of local gatherings of local officials," Chiang says.

    But some governments tell us that they've never received such a notice.

    "Do you ever recall getting a letter from the state saying there's money owed to you?" Grover asked Kent.

    "No, I do not," Kent replied.

    Local governments could also check the state's unclaimed property database themselves, but don't do it often.

    "Of course they should be checking. Every dollar counts," Stern says.

    Finding the money is easy! In about 30 seconds, all an agency has to do is type in its name in the online state database, find the cash and claim it. After some follow-up paperwork, the money is usually returned.

    If the Colton Public Library officials had checked, they would've found the $9,000 owed to them.

    Now that we've told them, they plan to collect, and use the money ASAP.

    "To provide more books for children, adults, increase our programming," Martinez says.

    You can check the State's unclaimed property database at: http://scoweb.sco.ca.gov/UCP/

    Do you have a story for us to investigate? email Joel at: Joel.Grover@nbcuni.com

    Click here to check out more NBC Los Angeles investigative reports.