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Strike three: Assessor should step down

Jackson County Assessor David Arrasmith’s job is not exciting, but it’s important. Property tax dollars fund public schools, fire districts, libraries, city and county government and more. So it’s vitally important that property assessments be done accurately. Arrasmith has now demonstrated for a third time that he is not up to the task.

After the Almeda and South Obenchain fires destroyed thousands of homes and businesses last September, the owners of those properties were eligible to have their property taxes prorated, lowering the amount they had to pay. But Arrasmith’s office used the wrong form to process those applications, which meant fire survivors underpaid their taxes by $466,000.

A bill now making its way through the Legislature could reduce that total by $100,000, but the remainder would still have to be repaid by property owners, adding to the hardships they have endured since the fires.

The amount owed by individual property owners will vary wideIy depending on the value of their property and which taxing districts they lived in. But it’s not the amounts that must be repaid that are the issue here. It’s the principle of hitting people who have already lost everything with yet another unexpected bill.

Arrasmith supervises a staff of more than 30 people. It’s not clear how the error happened or who made the mistake, but it doesn’t really matter. As the assessor, Arrasmith ultimately is responsible. And he resisted even making the effort to send out letters to fire survivors to tell them they could apply for relief.

This is not the first time the assessor has made a major error. In 2018, Arrasmith’s office made two blunders: certifying a Fire District 4 levy for 9.9 cents per $1,000 of assessed value when it should have been 99 cents, and diverting a share of tax revenue to the Central Point Urban Renewal District from the entire city rather that just the area within the district’s boundary.

At the time, County Administrator Danny Jordan called it “a glaring error.” After the most recent incident, he was less diplomatic. “It was a complete disaster.”

Arrasmith has been working from home most days during the pandemic, even as his staff were coming in to the office.

As county administrator, Jordan supervises, hires and fires the heads of county departments — but not the assessor, who is an elected official, on a par with the commissioners, the sheriff, the county clerk and the county surveyor. Arrasmith earns a salary of $116,646 a year, which will increase to $124,966 next January after raises for cost of living and job experience take effect.

The county Budget Committee withheld merit raises for Arrasmith after the 2018 errors, but said this year they wouldn’t withhold the 2022 raises because he hadn’t yet made any new mistakes.

He has now.

Ultimately, the only recourse taxpayers have is to mount a recall campaign to remove Arrasmith from office — a time-consuming and difficult process. For instance, under state law a recall campaign can’t even be filed until the official has been in office for at least six months of their current term — after June in Arrasmith’s case.

Ten years ago, voters had the opportunity to make the assessor’s position an appointed one, along with the clerk and the surveyor, but rejected it. The county treasurer also was elected until 1999, when voters made it an appointed position.

Many years ago, when assessors had some leeway in determining property values, it made sense to have voters elect them. Today, the assessor has no power to make or change tax policy, and is required to follow state law in determining property values. The job is administrative and highly technical, requiring skills voters have no real way to evaluate.

As long as the people elected are competent and do their jobs well, there is no harm in electing them. The danger is that someone gets elected who doesn’t do the job.

Ultimately, the assessor should be made an appointed position, subject to consequences for failure to adequately perform the duties of the office. Arrasmith was last elected in 2020, meaning it will be 2024 before he has to run again, so for now, the only recourse voters have is to recall him.

He should save them the trouble and resign, allowing the commissioners to appoint a competent replacement.