About two years ago the Mono County Board of Supervisors asked me to sit on the County Assessment Appeals Board. Great, I thought, all I need is another volunteer position to consume my time and add to my resume. I promised myself not to get sucked in again like I have so many times before. (The irony of my life in Mammoth is that all of these volunteer jobs and positions have greatly enhanced my insight into the area and the workings of the people who live and visit here–far more than any paid job.)
But ultimately, after some research, I agreed to sit on this Board that hears the appeals of local property owners–appeals of their property taxes as assessed by the Tax Assessor. As I have learned, those making the appeals range from simple little property owners who generally misunderstand the process and laws, to slick, specialized attorneys representing developers and large landowners. I was also given a stack about eight inches thick of California Property Tax Law to review. Luckily, I was told, “nobody really knows everything about this body of law, so don’t worry.” But I did have to attend a class put on by the State Board of Equalization.
And once again I found myself in the middle of, and observing an interesting administrative transition. The last one was in 1991 when as a Commissioner I observed a new Planning Director take the reigns here in Mammoth. The town was just getting on its feet and had hired a new Director. Although he is long gone, today his impact and the directions he sent us in are all around us. He brought a sophistication that Mammoth had not experienced before. And many old-timers went screaming and clawing into the future. The sign ordinance was an example. Today, the lack of back lit signs (there are still a few “grandfathered” around), neon signs, massive signage, etc. in Mammoth is all a byproduct of the ordinance. Applying for and capturing grants for things like bike paths, open space and housing all accelerated under his Directorship. Even though it wasn’t universally popular, many good and maturing things began in that period.
So now I’m witnessing a new transformation, and although it is not popular with everyone, I see it as a very good one. Glenn Barnes was the Mono County Assessor when I joined the Board. I didn’t really know Mr. Barnes except that his name appeared on a variety of Assessor related documents that I would receive personally and during the course of the real estate business in Mono County. Shortly after I joined the Board I learned Mr. Barnes would be leaving his position, but before he did he told me a little about his history. He was a Bridgeport boy that ended up being elected the Assessor and he learned the job by being on the job. (This is not unlike many of our County elected officials in the past decades.) He had done the job for over 20 years and he wanted to take some time off and focus on some health issues. I sensed he was simply burned out.
So enters an interim Assessor, Mr. James Lovett. He apparently has tons of experience including working for the State Board of Equalization and numerous stints in interim Assessor positions and consulting. He appears to be a modest but very knowledgeable and experienced man who is relishing the opportunity to continue his career but also have the opportunity to step out the back door and cast a fly at a big brown. He has since been elected the County Assessor (he ran unopposed).
But what I am seeing is a new level of sophistication and training in the Assessor’s office. The notorious backlog of re-assessments and issuing of “escaped” and supplemental tax bills is being methodically eliminated. Appeals from the property owning public are being handled more efficiently and timely. And the specialized consultants and attorneys representing large property owners aren’t pushing their way around. I sense a greater fairness to property owner, both large and small. The staff in the Assessor’s office appears more knowledgeable and confident about their work. All of this is good. (And some of this improvement has cost me, as a property owner, money!)
So what have I learned about appealing a property tax assessment? First and most critical is the timely filing of the appropriate paperwork to file the appeal. The timelines are tight and just making a phone call to the Assessor’s office doesn’t count. But I do recommend making the phone call (or visiting) the office. The staff is very helpful in explaining the filing deadlines and how the assessment was derived. (Don’t forget, the laws are 8 inches thick–life is too short.) At this point in time I think the Assessor’s office will have a solid case for their assessed valuation. But there are always exceptions. From a real estate practitioner’s standpoint, some of it is pretty interesting. And in Mono County there is such a variety of properties–from swanky resort condo hotel units to cattle ranches to near worthless properties held for generations. And because appraisal is not an exact science, neither is assessment. My opinion would be to try to figure it out before actually going to a hearing.
If one does end up in an Appeals hearing, the County will be represented by an outside attorney who specializes in the tax assessment field, the County Counsel, and the Assessor and his staff. An appellant better be prepared. Some appellants choose to be represented by and attorney or an appraiser. It is easy for the appellant to look bad. Especially now that the Assessor’s office has been transformed.