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Tax assessor missed error on fire survivors’ tax bills

David Arrasmith
Survivors could have to repay up to $466,000

Jackson County Tax Assessor David Arrasmith missed an error that caused fire survivors to underpay their property taxes by $466,000 ― leaving county workers with the overwhelming task of recalculating thousands of tax bills and telling survivors they owe more money.

The tax assessor’s office is being reviewed by the county’s internal audit department and the Oregon Department of Revenue.

Arrasmith has been working primarily from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, except on Mondays and for short afternoon visits to his office on other weekdays, according to staff members.

He earns an annual salary of $116,646, which is slated to increase to $124,966 in January 2022 once a summer cost-of-living raise and a winter raise for gaining experience on the job go into effect.

Arrasmith was appointed tax assessor in 2016 to fill a vacancy, then won election for a four-year term that started in January 2017.

As an independently elected official, he does not answer to the county administrator or the elected Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

County workers across many departments have been putting in long hours responding to the COVID-19 pandemic plus the Almeda and South Obenchain fires that wiped out nearly 2,500 homes and more than 170 business buildings.

In a public video teleconference, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said workers in the tax assessor’s office and the finance department have been putting in long hours as well, especially after the mistake affecting fire survivors was discovered.

Jordan said Arrasmith has not been providing oversight and leadership for the tax assessor’s office. He failed to check and catch the incorrect property tax billing for fire survivors.

“It was a complete disaster,” Jordan said.

The tax assessor’s office used an incorrect form to pro-rate the taxes of fire survivors who lost buildings on their land. Pro-rating their taxes lowered the amount they had to pay, but the amounts were in error.

“I do apologize for the mistake,” Arrasmith said during the teleconference meeting.

Arrasmith said his office processes thousands of pieces of paperwork a year.

“I don’t micromanage. I don’t check every piece of paperwork,” he said.

Arrasmith said he was following COVID-19 protocols to wear a mask, practice physical distancing and work from home when possible.

Arrasmith said he has been responding to emails and phone calls, reviewing documents from tax districts and participating in teleconference meetings from home. He said he tried to take some of the burden off his staff by handling tax appeals.

Jordan said other county workers have been working in person, especially after the devastating September 2020 fires.

Jordan said Arrasmith should have been checking the pro-rated property tax bills for fire survivors.

The county doesn’t plan to immediately reach out to fire survivors about the error. A bill under consideration by the Oregon Legislature would give a tax break to fire survivors.

Of the $466,000 that fire survivors owe, they could owe about $100,000 less if the bill passes. Jackson County plans to recalculate bills once it knows the outcome of the legislation.

Jackson County Finance Department Director Shannon Bell, who has to help clean up the mess over the incorrectly pro-rated tax bills, said county workers dread having to tell fire survivors they owe more money.

“This is a big deal. These people lost their homes,” Bell said.

The pro-rating billing error only came to light when Jackson County submitted data to the state about the financial impacts of the legislation that aids fire survivors. The Oregon Department of Revenue caught the mistake.

Jordan has concerns about the legislation, which could lower tax bills for fire survivors but could also reduce the amount of property taxes headed to a wide range of local taxing districts, from the county government to the library district to fire districts.

Jackson County is in charge of assessing and collecting taxes for dozens of local taxing districts.

Arrasmith has a history of not catching errors in the tax assessor’s office.

In 2018, the Jackson County Budget Committee decided not to give Arrasmith a merit raise after he failed to catch two mistakes that affected tens of thousands of property tax accounts.

Those mistakes led to massive amounts of additional work for county workers, plus frustration and headaches for taxpayers.

During this year’s budget process in the spring, budget committee members said they were concerned Arrasmith doesn’t have a plan and isn’t asking for more money to boost staffing in the wake of the fires.

As new houses and businesses are built and manufactured homes are placed in cleaned up manufactured home parks, the tax assessor’s office will have to reassess the property value of thousands of sites, placing a major new burden on existing workers unless they get more help.

Budget committee members decided to give Arrasmith the summer cost-of-living and January 2022 experience raises because his office hasn’t yet made mistakes from the crushing workload of reassessing replacement homes. Committee members said it wouldn’t be fair to withhold raises in anticipation that Arrasmith would make more blunders.

That work to reassess new homes is on top of the work that needs to be done to eventually correct the errors in the pro-rated tax bills of fire survivors.

Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said Arrasmith lacks a plan to avoid making mistakes in the future.

Jordan said Arrasmith previously balked at even informing fire survivors that they were eligible to have their damaged property pro-rated.

Jordan said he had to ask the tax assessor’s office several times to send out letters to fire survivors to let them know they could have their property tax bills lowered. He said Arrasmith resisted helping fire survivors.

“You were resistant to that until the very end. Something basic,” Jordan told Arrasmith. “You know why, Dave? Because you don’t have to do it. But in a situation like this, you should do it. In a situation like this, you should not be sitting at home. You should be at your office helping your staff who are there working overtime and busting their behinds to help our citizens through all of this.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.