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Team tackling problems in county assessor’s office

A team of Jackson County workers has come together to help fix longstanding problems with the Jackson County Tax Assessor’s Office. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
State audit identified major issues in Jackson County

The Jackson County Assessor’s Office has teamed up with other county departments to fix major problems in the assessor’s office that were identified in a state audit.

The assessor’s office is getting help from the county’s finance department and the county’s own internal audit department, which both have expertise in financial analysis and project management.

“We’re all here to help,” Jackson County Finance Director Shannon Bell said Thursday during a meeting with assorted county staff and Jackson County commissioners.

An Oregon Department of Revenue audit released in July found the assessor’s office isn’t computing taxes in compliance with the law. Another 11 functions, including fixing taxing errors, are done in ways that put it at risk of being out of compliance. Five functions are being done in an acceptable, adequate way.

Two weeks ago, county commissioners held a meeting and raked Jackson County Assessor Dave Arrasmith over the coals after he sat on the state audit for nearly two months without making plans to fix problems. His attitude of evading responsibility at that meeting was noticeably improved at Thursday’s meeting.

“I believe the process is going forward. It’s moving right along,” Arrasmith said.

By Nov. 1, the Oregon Department of Revenue wants to see a plan to fix the problems in the assessor’s office, which is prone to mistakes and years behind on the research it needs to do to assess taxes correctly. The problems could take several years to fix.

Jackson County Auditor Eric Spivak, a certified internal auditor, made a spreadsheet listing all the problems and identified those that would be quickest and easiest to fix.

The assessor’s office has already fixed some of the easiest problems, Arrasmith said.

Arrasmith is elected by voters and doesn’t have to answer to the elected county commissioners or the county administrator, who is a hired staff person. Arrasmith will earn more than $120,000 this year, even after the Jackson County Budget Committee withheld raises and knocked him down a pay grade for repeated errors over the years.

Angela Stuhr, a valuation manager for the assessor’s office, appears to be taking the lead on fixing the problems with help from the finance and audit departments.

Spivak, the internal auditor, said there is now a team to address the problems that taps into Stuhr’s abilities, Arrasmith’s knowledge, the finance director’s skills and the expertise of the county’s auditors.

“It was wonderful to see the group effort yesterday,” Spivak said of a Wednesday meeting among the team members.

County staff members are now holding weekly teleconference meetings with Oregon Department of Revenue as they develop the improvement plan that’s due by Nov. 1.

At the Thursday meeting, County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he was relieved to see the team is starting to formulate a plan to tackle the problems in the assessor’s office.

“This is exactly what we had hoped to see a few week ago,” Dyer said. “It took people with the right motivation and guidance to do it. I’m encouraged compared to where we were two weeks ago.”

As for the impact on property taxpayers, some will pay more, others will pay less and some will pay about the same as the assessor’s office gradually fixes its processes to reliably operate within the law.

The assessor’s office may make fewer mistakes, which in the past have caused headaches for tens of thousands of county taxpayers and a massive increased workload on county departments that had to help fix errors.

The assessor’s office likely will need more workers to fix its operations while continuing to carry out its day-to-day work. That help could come in the form of newly hired staff, or temporary contracts with people who have experience in the field.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the finance director and county auditor have experience with managing contractors and projects. They can help if the county brings contractors on board, he said.

Jordan said the assessor’s office missed an opportunity to get more state funding for workers in the aftermath of the 2020 Almeda and South Obenchain fires that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Jackson County. The fires and their aftermath massively increased the workload on multiple county departments.

The county Development Services Department and Surveyor’s Office recognized they needed more help as communities rebuilt and got state funding, Jordan noted.

But Arrasmith didn’t seek more state and county funding for workers — despite the Jackson County Budget Committee urging him to do so.

“Now we don’t have access to the state funds. It’s on us,” Jordan said.

Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk is a hired staff person while Jackson County Surveyor Scott Fein is elected.

The Jackson County Budget Committee has repeatedly criticized Arrasmith for his work while praising Fein for his professionalism and expertise in running the Surveyor’s Office. The budget committee is made up of three citizens and the three county commissioners.

In November 2021, a majority of Jackson County voters voted to keep the assessor position as an elected office.

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