Today’s session with Butte County assessor candidate Diane Brown answered all my questions about the assessor’s race – including, why would such a highly skilled non-partisan position be filled by the fickle public?
Brown’s opponent Al Petersen had already led us into this conversation, telling us how important it is to have an assessor who has an eye for detail and a good relationship with the public to keep the rolls accurate and up to date. Diane Brown took it further, driving in the need for experience in this leadership role.
Petersen and Brown are former co-workers at Butte County assessor’s office, Petersen having left a few years back to take a position with the Sutter County assessor. Al is a very polite guy, I didn’t want to get into it with him about why he left Butte County as an employee to drive all the way to Sutter for a job, I figure, there are a million personal reasons. But he and Diane still have a very good rapport, and that made for one heck of an informative conversation. I’ll say, they both know their job and are really serious about this position.
Diane led right off telling us about the function the office, picking up where we left off with Al. With a staff of about 38 people, the office is responsible for identifying taxable properties and their owners, assessing taxable value of everything from bare land to new construction, commercial properties, residential remodels and rebuilds. The maps must be updated to reflect changes in parcel boundaries and subdivisions.
Assessments, she says, are based on recorded documents, inspections, and objective market values. Of course, market values have been falling over the past years, there are plenty of houses currently over-assessed. Brown explained that these homes can be enrolled in the Proposition 8 program. Prop 8 allows the assessor to adjust the base value of a house when it becomes “upside down”. The home remains in this program until either the market recovers and the home becomes worth more, or the house adjusts down to true market value. There are currently about 22,000 houses enrolled in the Prop 8 program. Brown says anyone who thinks their house is over-assessed should certainly contact the assessor’s office.
Properties can also qualify for a variety of exemptions. For example, if your home is damaged by some accident – even if it was your own fault – you can get exempted from paying taxes on all or part of the house until it has been repaired. Also, home improvements that are made to accommodate a handicapped individual are exempt from re-assessment. In fact, a handicapped person may sell their home to move to a more accommodating home, and keep the tax base from their previous home. I’m sorry if my explanation is simplistic – if you want all the details, contact the assessor’s office.
I’ll tell you what, the conversation was flying fast and over my head alot of the time. There’s a lot to this job, that’s for sure. Complicating matters, Brown says the manual by which assessments are made is woefully out of date and hasn’t been updated because the position of Standards Officer has been vacant since 2005. The county has made cuts to stay on budget, but there is a position Brown says she would very much like to see filled.
She is left to rely on her experience both in assessing and in training new assessors. There are a myriad of complicated rules and regulations – she used the exemptions as an example – something as simple as noticing a handicapped sticker on a car at a house getting a remodel would tell an experienced assessor that this household may be eligible for an exemption.
“My training and experience make me the best candidate for this job,” Brown asserted. Sue asked, how long would it take to bring a person who is not experienced up to speed in this job. I immediately thought of the Wilmar 8 – a group of female bank employees who went on strike back in the 80′s, one of their complaints being, they were regularly made to train outside male workers promoted over them.
Diane explained that the state will grant such a person a temporary assessor’s certificate, which is good for one year. During that time this person must receive 24 hours of training regarding all the stuff Diane told us about at this meeting. This would make them qualified to be hired as an assessor, but Diane says, a new hire would still require at least a couple more years of intensive training to be qualified as an “advanced assessor,” able to go out on their own and make their own calls. But, at the will of the capricious mob, they’re qualified to head the office? Weird, so very, very weird.
I wonder if the public is up to hiring somebody for this job, most of us having a slim to nothing hold on the qualifications. But, Diane reminded me, this person needs to be accountable to the public. “An assessor has to be able to work under a lot of pressure,” she said. County officials might want the assessor to over-assess, bring in more revenues for the county. These people could put an obscene amount of pressure on an individual who was beholden to them for a job. That’s why the assessor has to be accountable to the voters.
Why me? she asked rhetorically. She went on to detail her 30 year relationship with Butte County. Starting in the assessor’s office in 1983 as a clerk typist, she educated and worked her way up to appraiser in 1989 (slightly different than assessor, an appraiser only fixes value, assessor figures in all the exemptions and rules that go into setting the tax), was one of the first office staffers to be sent out to do field work, and one of the first women to work in the mountains. She has worked at all the local offices, trained new employees, and, as an advanced assessor, has assessed all sorts of properties – residential, commercial, ag, etc.
What would Diane do as head of the County Assessor’s office? Again she mentioned the out-of-date manual. She would like that to be updated, asap. This would require the hiring of a new Standards Officer. The assessor’s office has been run very frugally under Fred Holland, who actually returned money to the General Fund the last few years. That’s like putting your children on diets to save money – not a good idea if they’re not actually fat. Maybe we need to ask our county supervisors to fill that position.
There is quite a little gaggle running against Diane and Al for this job. Diane said it - “Let’s face it, this position pays a lot of money.” Al told us, the assessor is only required to be in the office, physically, two days a year! Those are the days he has to deal personally with the auditor. Bill Connelly and Virgle Gage have absolutely no qualifications, Connelly has already made statements indicating he will be completely dependent on staff. Rudy Rindelsbach is a realtor. His knowledge of realty may come in handy for him, but he, like Connelly and Gage, will still have to be “brought up to speed” on all those laws and exemptions. Again, leaving staffers who are hired instead of elected to run the shop. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not accusing county staff or CAO Paul Hahn of anything, but like Diane said, a boss can put undue pressure on employees, it’s better to keep the safeguards in place.
Diane Brown seemed firm in her conviction that “the taxpayers deserve somebody who can step in there the first day of work without any training…the taxpayers deserve better.”
So, there it stands – of a field of five candidates in which we have two that are qualified and three that may just be in it for the $123,000 a year paycheck. You decide.
Thanks to Diane Brown for coming in on a Sunday and thanks Al Petersen for coming in to round out the conversation. I think it is very much to both of their credit that they come out to engage the voters.
And thanks to everybody who came down to enjoy sandwiches with me for Taxpayer Appreciation Day!