Leaders of La Casa de la Raza charged Tuesday that the Latino community group has been unfairly maligned in two local newspaper articles, and publicly demanded a retraction during a news conference in front of the organization’s building at 601 E. Montecito St. in Santa Barbara.
The story under scrutiny was published initially on Feb. 15 in Santa Barbara Latino, a Spanish-language newspaper owned by the Santa Barbara News-Press, which published an English translation of the story more than a month later.
But La Casa leaders say the article was never updated before it was run a second time, and incorrectly claims that the organization’s building is slated to go up for auction in late May because of unpaid taxes. The property has been taken off the auction block, according to Santa Barbara County officials, but the article has not been updated since it was published Sunday by the News-Press.
Why the newspaper ran the story a month later after its original publication without updating the story to reflect the new auction deadline is unclear. News-Press editors did not respond to Noozhawk’s request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
“We find it unconscionable that the News-Press would publish a month-old story and not verify its accuracy,” La Casa board President Marisela Marquez, adding that the problem was compounded when several television and radio news stations ran the story as well without verifying the auction date.
The dispute comes as the organization is about to hold its 40th anniversary dinner this Saturday, which will serve as a fundraiser to help make up for the back taxes the group owes.
The group took issue with several points in the article, saying that its property is not being sold or auctioned, and that La Casa has not lost its nonprofit status. Group leaders say their attorneys had been working with the county long before the stories appeared in print.
“The quotes are not accurate, and we have been exploring what steps if any we will take regarding that issue,” said Raquel Lopez, La Casa’s executive director.
In regards to the allegation that the group had lost its tax status, Lopez shared with Noozhawk a letter from the IRS that was sent in 2009, confirming the organization’s nonprofit status.
La Casa owns its Montecito Street building, but has been in default on its property taxes since the 2004-05 fiscal year. The organization has until April 1 to pay the $85,474 it owes to stop the auction, according to Clint Donati, assistant treasurer tax-collector for Santa Barbara County.
Donati said the property has been taken off the auction block because of new state guidelines sent to the county at the beginning of March. He said it’s likely the county won’t act until the new state rules are in place, which could be in August or September of this year.
“They realized they’ve got to pay this now,” Donati said of La Casa, adding that the county is hopeful the group will act soon. “We’d much rather collect taxes from somebody than sell their property, especially with their long history in the community.”
Marquez said the organization will be paying the full amount owed, adding that the county has agreed to refund any fees that have been incorrectly assessed.
“The county is working with us,” she said. “Unlike what was reported, we are not evading our tax responsibility.”
The organization is exploring all forms of fundraising, including donations and even a loan as it works to pay what it owes the county, Marquez told reporters. She wouldn’t say how much the group has raised so far, but said she’s hopeful that Saturday’s fundraiser will bring in the needed funds.
The group is still working with its attorney to sort out exactly what it owes to the county.
“We’re absolutely concerned, because we want to make sure we pay if there’s anything we owed,” Lopez told Noozhawk in December.
Lopez said Tuesday that the organization is “very confident we’ll pay it by the deadline. We want to put this to rest.”
She said one possible donor the group is considering an offer from “believes in La Casa, and supports La Casa, and wants us out of the media’s attention.”
Marquez said the initial story was picked up by other media “as though it had come over the AP news wire,” and admonished those that had run the story to give equal space to running La Casa’s side of the story and a retraction.
Lopez said the 40-year-old organization has a positive legacy that isn’t reflected in the media.
At Saturday’s fundraising dinner, the organization will be honoring Jorge Huerta, founder of Teatro de la Esepranza.
“That’s the news, that’s exciting,” Lopez said, adding that the quinceaneras, weddings and community events that the space is used for often go unnoticed by the media.
“It’s that kind of space that never gets reflected,” she said.