In 2004, Fisk, then 57, lost his job and faced homelessness. He moved everything he owned out of his apartment—at one point, he estimated it was worth about $50,000—and into a self-storage unit Downtown. Before long, he couldn't even pay the rent on that space. His property was auctioned off to pay his storage bill.
For the next five years, Fisk lived in his car and motels, spending a stretch at St. Vincent de Paul's homeless facility. In 2011, when he was finally back on his feet, Fisk heard from a friend that he probably had money owed to him for that storage unit. Under California law, when storage facilities auction abandoned property, they are allowed to take only enough off the top to recover costs. The remaining balance is supposed to be returned to the owner, who has a year to collect it. Fisk says he never received a check or notification, even though he provided the management with a post-office box.
So, in September 2011, he went to the storage center and learned that there'd been $744.02 left over from the auction, a fraction of the original value but still a substantial sum for a 64-year-old living on social security. However, the management told him that, per California law, the check had been forwarded to the county when he failed to claim it.
Fisk contacted San Diego County administration and discovered that the county had swallowed up the money two years earlier. It's a process called “escheatment,” whereby the county is allowed to deposit unclaimed money into its general fund if no one has come for it after three years. Fisk next enlisted the help of Elder Law & Advocacy, a firm that provides free legal services to seniors. The county rejected his requests for the money, claiming he was too late. Fisk took the county to court, but a judge rejected his suit earlier this month.
“Why can't the county hold onto money that's worth over $100 for a longer period?” Fisk says in an interview with CityBeat. “If I found out I lost $15 or $12, I wouldn't be crying about it. I wouldn't waste nobody's time. But I didn't even know about it.”
San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister, who oversees the escheated funds, cites state law.
“You could make that argument: ‘What's magic about 3 or 4 years?'” McAllister says. “We try to do things in conformance with code, but we also don't want to house money that's going to sit idle.”
Each December, the county Board of Supervisors votes to accept a lump sum of unclaimed money that's hit the three-year mark. In 2011, the county deposited $133,552.76 from 2,365 individual unclaimed accounts. Most are small reimbursements and refunds that the county owed to citizens who never collected it. For example, District attorney Bonnie Dumanis' office turned over to the county's general fund roughly $7,300 in reimbursements owed to almost 600 witnesses for expenses such as parking, usually about $12.
McAllister says his office “bends over backwards” to reunite owners with their money. He points to a coordinated media campaign that includes press conferences, television appearances, advertising and a section on his official website. He notes that escheated money has decreased by 50 percent since 2009, when $269,000 made it into the general fund. Fisk's case is the first time in 10 years McAllister says he's heard of a person asking for his money back after it's been escheated.
“As much as we hate to see anyone who's down on their luck lose out on monies that could rightfully have been claimed, the process is fair and open to everybody,” McAllister says. “Three years is a long time. If someone knew they had something in storage… you would think they would've checked within three years. Maybe that's not everybody's case.”
Fisk argues that, as a homeless person, he wasn't likely to see any of McAllister's publicity. In 2009, McAllister's office posted the full list of unclaimed property required by law in an obscure publication called the San Diego Uptown Examiner. This year, the list was published in the San Diego Daily Transcript, a publication available only by subscription.
The treasurer also publishes general announcements of the claim deadline in other newspapers, but the text is misleading, indicating it only applies “if you've done business with the county in the past,” without mentioning other unclaimed property, such as storage lockers. Further, according to a list of advertising purchases provided to CityBeat, the ads did not run in any free publications circulated Downtown. Of the 11 free newspapers that ran the notice, more than half were community newspapers covering San Diego's affluent neighborhoods: Carmel Valley News, Del Mar Times, Rancho Santa Fe Review, Rancho Bernardo News Journal, Peninsula Beacon, La Jolla Light and La Jolla Village News.
Following CityBeat's inquiries, McAllister's office said it would consider posting notices at homeless shelters.
Fisk says that if he had the $744, he'd set it aside for his future health expenses. With the county holding $763.1 million in reserves this budget cycle, he questions whether the government really needs his money more than he does.
“They're not hurting,” he says. “They think they are, but they're not hurting.”