The May Real Estate Q&A appeared in this last weekend’s The Sheet. This issue of The Sheet was predominately focused on the June 3 election, so the Q&A fit in well. Obviously, second homeowners won’t be voting for the Mono County Assessor’s position, but I think this information is valuable nonetheless.
Q: We noticed on your blog site that you are a member of the Mono County (Property Tax) Assessment Appeals Board. We’ve also been watching the competition for the upcoming Assessor’s election and wondered what input you might have since you should have some interesting insight into the office and department?
A: I’ve sat on the Board for the past 4 years and have served under the two previous Assessors. And yes, it has been enlightening. As I drive around the town and county and see the “John/Jane Doe for Assessor” signs what really comes to my mind is this: Does the average man on the street really have a clue what this is all about? Oh sure, maybe they have followed some of the scandalous, recent past, but do they have any understanding about what they are voting for? And why are all these people running for this position anyway? And even if somebody has read all the campaign rhetoric by the candidates, why is the “trust” and “fairness” and “integrity” such a big deal? (Hell, the Mammoth Advocates didn’t even take a position!)
So pay attention. The primary reason all these wonderful, caring citizens are chasing this position is because it is a great paying job in the eastern high sierra where great paying jobs are few and far between. And you barely have to qualify for the job. The 2007 Mono County budget shows the Assessor’s office receives close to $1.5 million in wages and benefits with the Assessor’s wages at around $130,000 per year. And yes, there’s an assistant assessor, staff appraisers, staff, etc. And yes, the job is critical to the County––property tax is the core revenue generator for county services. But with the Assessor as an elected position, I even joked some months ago that I would run knowing the economic value of the job. So go ahead and write my name in, although being a bureaucrat would drive me to drink.
Our current candidates are all honorable and I’ve decided it is probably not appropriate for me to endorse any candidate in particular. Instead there are a few of things I’ve learned since being on the Board that I think the public should consider when selecting.
Appraisal Experience. The Assessors office is founded on the real estate appraisal process. Real estate appraisal is more of an art than a science. And even though it is suppose to be objective, it can be very subjective. Today, some folks think they can just Zillow the property and get the answer. Yeah right. (Right now local appraisers can’t even agree if we’re in a “stable” or “declining” market. I call it “conflicted”.) And appraising/assessing commercial property in Mono County is a snap––there are so many “like comparables.” Even worse you have crazy things like people building $20 million homes and hiring a battery of attorneys and private appraisers to argue a lower valuation. Or even worse you have private equity/hedge fund bullies that come and go and try to dance around things. So why would we want to elect someone to the office that has no appraisal/assessment background? But it could happen.
California Property Tax Law and Procedure. Then comes the reams of property tax law in the State of California that sits about 10 inches high on my desk (well, actually under my desk in a box). One real estate attorney told me that it is too much to specialize in––you have to specialize in a particular part of it. Mono County, being a rural county without a large volume of appeals, is represented in Appeals hearings by such a specialized attorney. That’s all he does is represent rural counties in appeals. And I’m sure he does plenty homework on each case. But it is critical that the Assessor has a solid knowledge of the law and procedure. That takes years of day-to-day experience. There’s no cramming for this test.
Communication With The Public. I’ve observed many property owners question their assessed values. Few actually appeal and fewer make it to a hearing. I always recommend people call the office for clarification and questions. I’ve seen things worked out. From what I have seen the Assessor’s office does an excellent job in sitting down with the (usually naïve) property owner and explaining the process and why they came up with the number. And granted, there are legitimate Appeals. But communicating with the public in a professional manner takes knowledge of the subject––so the Assessor’s office needs to have that skill level from the top to the bottom. And the office always needs to be able to defer the highest authority––the Assessor.
There are other skills a quality Assessor should have in my opinion. Proven administrative and leadership skills should be obvious. Local knowledge is important too. And now, “Prop. 8” applications—the request for reduced assessments––will be on the rise and it is critical those are handled skillfully.
Mono County is a diverse county with diverse properties and with even more diverse property owners. The State requirement that the voters of Mono County elect the Assessor means that it is one of the last administrative positions in Mono County left up to the voters. We only have ourselves to blame for the past. We have a chance to move one more administrative office away from the “good ‘ol boy” days of Mono County. Please vote with your brain.