As soon as those financial disclosure forms came in last month, in which candidates revealed how much money they'd raked in so far from supporters, our suspicions were confirmed: The Assessor's race was hands down the most scintillating race in town.
OK, maybe that's overstating things a bit. But at least one of the candidates' forms made our hearts go thumpety thump with the promise of weeks to come of heady speculation, of genuine political spark, in what should be a sleepy race with a predictable outcome. (The historical record shows that if there's an incumbent, the incumbent wins; otherwise, the job is the assistant assessor's for the taking, with blessings from a usually bored electorate.)
There was nothing too exciting about candidate Mari Wilson's disclosure form: Wilson, of Eureka, who has worked in the assessor's office for 23 years and has been the assistant assessor for the past seven, had raised $6,315, most of it her own money. Jon Brooks of Blue Lake, a long-time business owner and a real estate appraiser, had raised a pinch more -- $6,595 (including two-thou from the Blue Lake Rancheria). But Johanna Rodoni, a long-time Fortuna rancher, who served over half a year as a county supervisor after her husband, the rascally and charismatic supervisor Roger Rodoni, died in office, had hauled cash: $21,473 from 78 donors, mostly in $500 or smaller increments. Her donor base had a decided flavor. There were lots of Southern Humboldtians, of course. Lots of retirees. And many, many prominent members of the local ranching, development and timber communities, names like Kramer, Russ, Schmidbauer, Zanzi, Wendt, Satterlee and Barnum.
What was up? Were the land people ready to riot?
Maybe. There are some hot-button issues related to timber, ag and rural land use that are directly or indirectly associated with the Assessor's office.
For example, there's a plethora of illegal parcels -- created by subdivisions not authorized by the planning department -- for which the Assessor's office has issued assessor parcel numbers for taxation purposes. Owners of these illegal parcels, however, can't get permits from county planning to legally build on them, nor can they borrow against them. So there they are paying taxes, while being called illegit. The 2008-2009 Grand Jury report noted the "continuing confusion" and frustration this state of affairs has created -- the 2006 Grand Jury had also tsk-tsked over it -- and urged the Assessor's office to help sort it out. The Assessor's office, in response, agreed it should help, but made clear that it was not the Assessor's job to determine a parcel's legality. A memo dated June 2, 2009, written by Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard and attached to the Assessor's response to the Grand Jury report, offered more hope: "The Planning Division and the Assessor's office have implemented a referral system to close the gap between the Taxation Code and the Map Act. Newly issued Assessor Parcel numbers are now cross-checked against subdivision records. The Planning Division pro-actively contacts the property owner if the initial cross-check indicates there may be a problem." Girard noted they were also pecking away at the backlog of questionable parcels, starting with ag and timber preserves "where illegal subdivisions can have the most impact on tax revenues, economic productivity and the environment."
Then there's the other big backlog: possibly thousands of "substandard" timber protection zone (TPZ) parcels sitting in limbo in the Assessor's office. Humboldt County has a million acres of TPZ land, whose owners enjoy significant reduced property tax rates in exchange for keeping the land in timber production, among other requirements, although the owner in time does pay a timber yield tax -- like a sales tax -- as the timber is harvested.
One requirement of the program is that, if a TPZ property gets divided into parcels less than 160 acres, the new owners have to file a joint timber management plan for those properties -- a measure ensuring the yield tax as well as preventing premature urbanization. But for years now some people have divided their TPZ lands into less than 160 acres and sold them to new owners, who did not file JTMPs. Belatedly, the Assessor's office discovered this and stopped processing changes in ownership involving substandard parcels lacking JTMPs. So the new owners, though they paid for their property, aren't recognized as the legal owners and can neither sell, trade or borrow against their land. Or even pay their taxes -- the tax bills are going to the old owners.
And then there is the ever-ongoing General Plan Update, which has stirred interest in rural land use overall.
But rioting landies aside, there are yet more reasons for sudden hawkeyes on this race.
A 2008 Assessment Practices Survey conducted by the state admonished the Assessor's office to improve its decline-in-value program by "annually reviewing and assessing all properties experiencing a decline in value ... and updating the decline-in-value notice to meet statutory requirements."
Under the 1978 Prop. 8, if a property's current market value falls below its current assessed value, it can be allowed a temporary reduction in its assessed value, and hence in property taxes. A property owner has to apply for the decline-in-value reassessment, which is free. And while some counties, like Los Angeles County, heavily publicize this program, others, like Humboldt, do not.
Also, the 2008-2009 Grand Jury report rattled off a host of concerns in the Assessor's office, including inadequate scheduling of employee performance evaluations; declining efficiency in the office because of inequal attention to computer training for all employees; irregular staff and management meetings; a poor Web-based system with no way for people to access property information or other pertinent public records; and "a practice of grooming a current employee in the Assessor's Office to ultimately run for election to the Assessor position," leading to bruised morale among other employees.
All of the candidates have touched on some or more of these issues in their campaigns, and in interviews. Actually, the three seem quite aligned in their desire to improve public service, efficiency and accessibility.
Where they differ is in their proposed ideological and practical approach to the task, and their fervor.
MARI WILSON: Normally she'd be a shoe-in. Eureka-raised and schooled, with a bachelor's from Chico State and accounting training from Humboldt State University, Wilson steadily climbed her way to the top in the Assessor's office, starting as an assessment clerk in 1987, then moving up to appraisal tech, real property appraiser, auditor-appraiser and supervising auditor-appraiser before finally becoming assistant to assessor in 2003.
If "Assessor" weren't an elected position, she'd be getting her final promotion in that office when Assessor Linda Hill retires this year. Instead, she must rely on voters to boost her to that final rung -- which, as we said, normally would be a mere formality. After Ray Flynn, Assessor from 1973 to 1994, retired, his assistant, Ray Jerland, won the seat. When Jerland, the Assessor from 1995 to 2002, retired, his assistant, Hill, won the seat. And so, by tradition, it should go for Wilson. It's her turn. And she rather expects it.
"I've had increasing responsibility over the years, and the opportunity to be Assessor seems like a natural progression for me and my career," Wilson said in a recent interview at Ramone's in Eureka. "I feel that I have done my work and learned my profession and now I am ready to assume that role of leader in the office."
She doesn't say this arrogantly, or presumptuously. Wilson is unassuming. She projects a no-nonsense, unflashy, worker-bee air. In the interview at Ramone's, and at a candidates forum held by the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, she came across as pleasant but slightly wary, and even a little weary, as if she were enduring this bothersome politicking but would much rather be back at the office, thank you very much, getting some real work done.
Indeed, according to inside sources, Wilson works her butt off in the Assessor's office. She oversees the budget, personnel and the day-to-day operations. She also handles assessment appeals.
Aside from the day-to-day stuff, Wilson says she's been innovative: She implemented barcoding and imaging, which speeds up document processing. She was part of a team made up of several counties that put together an online system for filing business property statements.
Wilson takes issue with some of the complaints about her department. She said the TPZ thing "is certainly an issue," but it's more the planning department's problem. She says budget constraints are the only reason her office has lagged in technology, and the reason the office is four people shy of its intended workforce.
Additionally, she says her office has, in fact, sent out decline-in-value notications recently. State Board of Equalization records seem to support this, showing a jump in the number of reduced assessments in Humboldt County under the Prop. 8 program, from 172 in 2007-08 to 623 in 2008-09.
She seems irritated by the "grooming" accusation: "Upper management needs to have the knowledge necessary to be ready to run the office in the Assessor's absence. And it was a county policy, actually, to have a succession in place."
Wilson's main goal, as Assessor, would be to improve public service and accessibility. She says she'd be on call full time. And there'd be more information available in print and on the Web. "It's always been a goal to update the Web site," she said. "But during these lean years there was only so much we could do. I would like people to know more about what our office does. I'd have links [on the Web site] to information on homeowners exemptions, on reappraisal exclusions on parent-child transfers, grandparent-grandchild transfers, and more. I would like to have a ‘frequently asked questions' page, and links to forms and to the state Board of Equalization's Web site, which already has a wealth of information available. And I'd like to make print copies of this available too."
But, she cautioned, she'd make these improvements gradually, as budget allows.
As for her personal life, Wilson and her husband, Craig, have a grown daughter and four dogs, they live within blocks of her childhood home, and they like to walk in Sequoia Park. She belongs to several charitable and professional organizations.
She points to her long slog up the governments ranks as her main qualification.
"While there are transferable skills [from the private sector] to the Assessor's office, how we do what we do is something you can only learn here," she said. "And I'm a lead-by-example person. I work hard, I challenge the office staff to work hard. And I will go the extra mile to resolve the issues -- or give an explanation of why they're not resolved yet."
Aside from a couple of realtors and assorted other folks, Wilson's backers include key insider government types: current Assessor Hill and former Assessors Flynn and Jerland, several former and current Assessor's office appraisers and technicians, and the current county Auditor-Controller.
JOHANNA RODONI: You can see why the land people love Rodoni. A Long Beach native who dreamed as a child of owning lots of horses, she got out of the city as soon as she could and moved to Southern Humboldt where she bought a small ranch and met and married Roger. They each had kids already. Rodoni has been president of the Humboldt CattleWomen's Association and a member of numerous committees and boards. But her main gig, aside from ranching, was executive director of The Buckeye Conservancy, a nonprofit group of family farmers, ranchers and timber owners working on economic and ecological sustainability, from 2001 to 2008. In 2008, she was appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger to serve the rest of her late husband's term as 2nd District Supervisor. And, she has actively worked on the county's General Plan Update.
Rodoni says she got an inkling she wanted to run for Assessor during her seven-month stint as a supervisor.
"While I was in office, constituents contacted me with problems several times, and some of these were problems with the Assessor's office," she said in a recent interview at Adel's in Eureka.
In one case, two sisters had inherited a ranch. Now they were getting elderly, and they wanted to subdivide and pass it on to their heirs. They needed to do a lot-line adjustment, but because of complications with the assessor parcel numbers they were stuck. "And they'd applied years ago to do this," Rodoni said. "But they were getting no response from the Assessor's office. They called me up and asked if I could find out what's going on."
Now, a supervisor can't tell an assessor what to do -- both are independent, elected officials, and the Assessor answers only to the voters and to the state, which sets the guidelines the Assessor follows to make assessments and so on. But Rodoni tried to get some information.
"So I called the Assessor's office and left a message and waited for an answer," she said. "And I kept doing this, for weeks. And I started to feel those women's frustration."
Eventually she ran into Hill, presented her with the question, and over time the problem was resolved. "So that was what finally opened up my eyes and told me that something was wrong with that department," said Rodoni. "I realized the Assessor's office was not very forthcoming and freeflowing with the information."
Rodoni has made decline-in-value notification a particular issue in her campaign. She even wrote a My Word piece about it in the Times-Standard. "You wouldn't believe how many phonecalls I got from people saying, 'How come I didn't know about that?'" she said. "The assessors in some counties are actively watching the markets, and they're proactively letting people know about being reassessed. I had to call our Assessor's office to find out about it, but they should have been contacting people."
Rodoni scoffs at the notion that the county can't afford a better Web site than the current half-pager that offers the names of the top three managers, the office hours, address and phone number, a brief sentence about what the Assessor does, and (aside from links to other county pages) one lonesome link to the e-File system for filing a Business Property Statement. (There is a more thorough site, actually, but it's available only by paid subscription.)
"No budget for it -- I find that argument weak," she said. "They could probably get a student to do it."
As for the confusion over illegal parcels, and the TPZ parcels in limbo, Rodoni says she would like to "open up the line of communication between the Assessor's Office and the Planning Department."
"I talked with a woman in real estate who lost a sale because of this sort of thing," she said. "And just because the Assessor's office has no enforcement powers doesn't mean it should say, 'Oh well, that's the way it is.'"
She said if elected, she would be strong on leadership, forming teams to handle some of the big issues. She cites her background in running a conservancy, her experience running a ranch for 15 years, and her inherent tendency to want to take charge as her major qualifications. "I think people in business recognize a need for a change in leadership," she said. "And I'm a very practical, thorough person. It's going to take someone with strong leadership, and gumption, to push through to solutions."
Like Wilson, she said she would be available full time to the public.
Aside from the land folks, Rodoni, too, has insider government-type backers, including former County CAO Loretta Nickolaus, County Supervisor Jill Duffy, retired County Chief Appraiser Roy Curless, Sheriff Gary Philp, Humboldt County Senior Planner Martha Spencer, County Planning Commissioner Mel Kreb, a harbor commissioner, and an assortment of councilmembers and mayors from Fortuna, Rio Dell, Ferndale, Arcata and Eureka.
JON BROOKS: In many ways, Brooks and Rodoni should appeal to the same kind of voter. They're both from the private sector and run their own businesses -- Brooks, a professional real estate appraiser, has had Brooks Appraisal Service for more than 20 years. And both candidates talk about the same things: Enough with the long line of insiders running the Assessor's office. Enough with the tangled up parcels, the poor public service, the crappy Web site -- the same old, same old.
The soft-spoken Brooks might be more roll-up-the-sleeves, perhaps, than the commanding Rodoni -- he's a friendly natterer, who loves to explain how things work.
"I've seen the office in action since the 1980s, and I've watched public service go downhill," said Brooks in an interview at his office out off West End Road in Arcata. "The last 40-some years, the Assistant Assessor has moved up to Assessor. ... At some point, without new blood in a leadership role, they just can't see how this is affecting public service. Bill Thomas [an appraiser who ran unsuccessfully against Hill in 2002], called it 'governmentalism,' where they forget they work for the people."
A chief concern of Brooks' is the sad Web site. Look at Los Angeles' County's site, he says -- the cadillac of splendid Web sites, walking you through every last tiny thing you might want to know about what an assessor does, and how, and what resources are available to the public, and forms, maps, pictures, market info and more. For a closer comparison, he says, look at Placer County's site, also excellent.
Brooks says a comprehensive, easy-to-use Web site could particularly help out rural people who have to drive long distances to Eureka to do much of their business. "We're talking about people driving in from Shelter Cove, Orleans, Blocksburg."
A good Web site would let people know about decline-in-value reassessment procedures as well, or about TPZ and ag preserves, or how to deal with an illegal parcel. And Brooks isn't just talking. His own campaign Web site shows an eagerness to explain things and to dissect the issues.
"You can find out more about Humboldt County's Assessor's office on my campaign site than you can on the official site," he said.
But if someone does come into the office in person, Brooks says -- as does Rodoni, and Wilson -- they should be greeted with friendliness and competence. "The first time I went into the Assessor's Office, back in the '80s, Ray Flynn was the Assessor," he said. "The office was on the first floor, and he was right there -- black tie, white shirt, and you could see him working in his office. I've never seen the current Assessor working -- there's a wall." He says the Assessor and Chief Appraiser took time to talk to people back then, and even ask their advice about the market -- these days, he's been told, they're not supposed to talk with the customers.
In addition to his zeal for better public service, Brooks says he is the most professionally qualified candidate. "Ninety-five percent of the tax revenue comes from real property taxes," he said. "Five percent comes from business and unsecured personal property taxes. You need someone with an understanding of real estate appraisal -- and that's what I do."
He says the current leadership in the office, on the other hand, has more expertise in the personal property side of things. "And you know, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail," he said.
Like Rodoni, Brooks also says the disconnect between Planning and the Assessor's Office needs to fixed. He suggests implementing an early noticing system of when parcels are subdivided, for instance, and making a tally of all the parcels and their status. He didn't know that county planning had begun a new program to deal with identifying illegal parcels -- but he said he was glad to hear of it.
Brooks also has public service experience: 10 years as the City of Eureka's property manager and as manager for the redevelopment agency's housing and redevelopment programs; and on several boards and committees, including the Williamson Act Committee.
Perhaps Brooks' other main distinction from Rodoni, aside from his more concrete ideas on solutions to certain problems, and his direct experience as an appraiser, is personal. He grew up in Napa, although his grandfather took him fishing in King Salmon and on the Klamath River. While at U.C. Davis, he had a student job sorting mail at the post office. And that's where he met his wife, Mary Jane Risling, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. They moved to Humboldt in 1979, and raised their kids here, and Brooks has become intimately involved in supporting indigenous cultural practices.
So it's no surprise, then, that he has the backing of several tribes. And the endorsement of the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee.
Brooks also has some insider government backers: retired Humboldt County Administrative Officers Bruce Rupp and John Murray; Assessor's office retirees Tim Kilburn, John Butts and Tom Oliphant; the retiring director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments, Spencer Clifton; former Supervisor Julie Fulkerson; and an assortment of mayors and councilmembers from Eureka, Blue Lake and Arcata.
The Assessor's Office
The Assessor's office, following guidelines set by the state Board of Equalization, decides whether your property is taxable -- nonprofits, schools, churches and such are tax-exempt -- and appraises it to determine its value, then sends it along with all of the other taxable property assessments to the Auditor-Controller, who assigns a tax rate and determines your tax. The Tax Collector bills you and collects the tax, and then the Auditor-Controller divvies the money up among the public entities funded by you and me.
Prop. 13 of 1978 limits the real property tax rate -- in general, it can't exceed 1 percent of the property's assessed value, and increases in that assessed value can't rise more than 2 percent annually. The only time a re-appraisal on a property can occur, in which the rate could possibly jump higher, is after a change in ownership (excluding exemption for certain familial transfers) or new construction. A re-appraisal can also be triggered by an overall market value decline, in which case the rate could temporarily drop.
The Assessor also determines the taxable values of unsecured business and personal property, which includes business equipment and boats and airplanes.
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Humboldt County Assessor's Office, 2008-2009, in numbers:
$2.4 million: gross budget
$1.7 million: net budget
$1.5 million: base salary and wages
$103,000-plus: Assessor's salary
75,183: total secured real property assessments, nearly half of them single-family houses
8,154: unsecured business and personal property assessments
$10.8 billion: total tax roll value
288: property splits and combinations mapped
896: new subdivision lots recorded
1,700: real property roll corrections
623: reduced-value assessments
884: new construction assessments
193: real property transfers
500: claims for tax exclusions (due to calamity, disability, family property transfers, etc)
2,699: vessels recorded
147: aircraft recorded
1,453: unsecured personal property field visits
1: racehorse tax return completed
4,275: business property statements processed
785: roll corrections
147: assessment appeals (47 invalid, 20 withdrawn, two no-shows, 16 resolved by stipulation, and five before the appeals board, four of which got reduced assessements).
From the State Board of Equalization's January 2010 report.