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Reader questions assessor issue on ballot

I have seen no discussion on the concept of changing our county assessor from a voted-in person to an appointed person. Some questions come to mind. If we say, “Let's have an appointed person,” who appoints him? Whatever happened to the usual information sent out on ballot issues giving arguments for both sides?

Getting a ballot like this for no obvious reason (we've been electing our assessor for quite a while now and only recently has this appointment idea popped up) raises a big red flag for me and predisposes me to say, “No way.” Who put this issue before the voters? How does that person/group stand to benefit from an appointed assessor?

— Mrs. E

Years ago, voters rejected a change that would have made the county assessor, clerk and surveyor hired employees rather than elected officials.

The issue of whether the assessor should be elected reared its head again after the Jackson County Assessor’s Office made a series of errors in the past few years under the management of David Arrasmith. He was reelected by voters for another four-year term that started in January of this year.

The errors affected tens of thousands of property tax accounts, creating massive headaches for county employees who had to fix the mistakes, plus frustration for taxpayers.

If the assessor becomes a hired staff person, that person could be hired and fired by the county administrator, a hired staff person. The county administrator answers in turn to the three-member elected Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

This year, commissioners decided to put the issue of whether the assessor should be elected before voters in a November special election. They discussed the issue openly in public meetings.

“This is a very technical position that does not make policy decisions as an elected official would,” County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said in an interview with the Mail Tribune this week.

He said the county uses hired people with technical knowledge plus leadership and management skills to run a range of county departments, including the roads and parks department and the finance department.

The leaders of many county departments are hired staff people, not elected officials.

Unlike with a thorough screening and interview process to hire someone, voters don’t necessarily have the information they need to know if someone is highly qualified to be a tax assessor, Dotterrer said.

“What do you make your judgment on?” he asked.

The Jackson County Budget Committee and the Oregon Department of Revenue have publicly raised concerns about mistakes in the assessor’s office. In 2018, the Budget Committee withheld a merit raise for Arrasmith because of errors in the assessor’s office. This spring, the Budget Committee voiced concerns about Arrasmith’s lack of planning, but approved a raise. Another mistake in the assessor’s came to light afterward.

His current annual salary is almost $119,000.

In the latest error, the tax assessor’s office used the wrong form to pro-rate taxes for 2020 fire survivors whose properties were damaged or destroyed.

Dotterrer said the county now has to claw back up to $477,000 from fire survivors who are trying to rebuild their lives.

“This was not a small error,” he said. “Here you are thinking you’ve moved on, and now someone’s asking you to give money back because we rebated too much.”

A review by the county’s audit and human resources department found the tax assessor’s office lacks proper safeguards to prevent errors, and Arrasmith needs to do a better job communicating with his staff. That review was publicly discussed by county commissioners.

The Mail Tribune has reported regularly on issues related to the assessor’s office.

Even if voters decide they want a hired assessor, Arrasmith will serve out his current four-year term unless he resigns or is recalled. After his term ends, the county could begin the process of vetting and hiring an assessor.

As for the Voters’ Pamphlet for the Nov. 2 special election, it contains an explanation of the assessor choice before voters, but not submitted arguments for or against the proposal.

Arguments for or against are provided by people who want to provide information to voters, said County Clerk Chris Walker, who handles elections.

"Keep in mind these arguments are optional and need to be filed with the appropriate filing fee to be printed in the Voters’ Pamphlet,“ she said. ”For a county measure, the fee is $400 per argument for/against, and the fees charged help defray the costs of providing a Voters’ Pamphlet.“

The fees are set by the state government, Walker said.

The explanatory statement in the Voters’ Pamphlet does provide some reasons why a hired assessor could be preferable to an elected assessor.

The statement says the county could set higher standards for a hired assessor compared to the standards currently in place for the elected assessor.

The statement says a hired person would not be subject to the distractions of a political campaign every four years. If the person’s job performance was poor, firing the person would be much easier than the current process where voters would have to mount a recall effort.

“The duties of the county assessor are heavily regulated by state law so political views have little impact on office operations,” the explanatory statement continues.

Historically, jurisdictions have had elected assessors under the belief that an elected person would be more responsive to voters, who are also taxpayers.

As for who would benefit from making the assessor a hired staff person, that is a matter for speculation.

The hired county administrator and elected county commissioners could have more control over the assessor, although within the limits of extensive state laws governing assessor duties. If the county hires a highly competent assessor, taxpayers and taxing districts could potentially avoid the headaches of assessment and billing errors.

“My belief is the property owners of Jackson County are the ones who stand to gain,” Dotterrer said.

However, there’s no guarantee that mistakes wouldn’t be made in the future. The Jackson County Assessor’s Office has a staff of 33 people charged with complex duties.

The county has thousands of people and businesses paying taxes, plus dozens of taxing districts, including Jackson County government, city governments, fire districts and the library district. Property taxes have to be assessed and reassessed accurately over time, including as people rebuild thousands of homes and business after the 2020 Almeda and South Obenchain fires, the Oregon Legislature changes tax laws and voters pass, renew or end property tax measures.

Some argue the complexity of an assessor’s duties represent another reason why the person should be a hired, highly trained and experienced professional.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com.