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Review finds problems in tax assessor’s office

A review found error prevention and communication problems in the Jackson County tax assessor’s office under the leadership of Tax Assessor Dave Arrasmith.
Report cites error prevention, communication problems, but says staff are dedicated, hard-working

A review of the Jackson County tax assessor’s office found it lacks the proper controls to prevent errors, and it says Assessor David Arrasmith needs to do a better job communicating with his staff.

The county’s audit and human resources departments conducted the review of the office run by Arrasmith, an elected official. They interviewed staff members to better understand what’s going on in the office.

Under Arrasmith’s management, the tax assessor’s office has made at least three major mistakes that affected thousands of tax accounts — leading to frustration for taxpayers and an overwhelming workload for county staff to correct the errors.

In the latest mistake, the tax assessor’s office used an outdated form and miscalculated the property taxes of thousands of people who lost their homes in the 2020 Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

County Auditor Eric Spivak said the tax assessor’s office should regularly review forms and processes to make sure they’re updated and accurate.

“There’s definitely room to improve the controls within the department to decrease the likelihood that errors will occur in the future,” Spivak said in a meeting with Jackson County commissioners earlier this week.

Spivak said staff members in the tax assessor’s office are dedicated, committed and engaged in their work. They feel comfortable asking managers questions, but many are frustrated with management’s communication with them.

Arrasmith is not keeping his staff well informed about big-picture issues, according to the review.

“As a general rule, engaged, committed employees want to know what’s going on in their department,” Spivak said. “They want to be informed of things like potential legislation that may affect how the department operates. They want to know management’s vision of plans for the future.”

Spivak said some staff members didn’t learn about the past error in calculating fire survivors’ tax bills until Jackson County commissioners discussed the mistake in a public meeting and the problem was reported by the press.

Spivak said the Oregon Department of Revenue is going to review the tax assessor’s office, probably in October or November.

In an email between Spivak and Arrasmith, Spivak wrote he doesn’t know whether Arrasmith has informed tax assessor’s office staff members of the upcoming review by the state agency.

Spivak said staff members want to know how the office will handle the workload as thousands of homes and businesses are rebuilt after the fires. The taxes on those properties will have to be reassessed as their value changes with rebuilding.

This spring, the Jackson County Budget Committee expressed concerns that Arrasmith has not presented a plan or asked for funding to hire more staff to deal with the increased workload.

In response to questions from the Mail Tribune, Arrasmith said in an email he’s been meeting weekly with his staff since June to assess the best approach for handling the additional work. They have been tracking building permits, and Arrasmith said he regularly drives through fire-affected areas.

Arrasmith said his office estimates about half of the roughly 2,500 damaged structures will be under construction on the assessment date of Jan. 1, 2022, so that would cut the office’s projected increased workload by half.

“Our normal operating plan is to spend October through December working in selected neighborhoods reviewing our records for accuracy,” Arramsith said in the email to the Mail Tribune. “This is not a statutory requirement. At this point our plan is to forgo that activity, and use those three months getting an early start on adding new construction to the tax rolls. This operational change and some others that are under consideration should be enough to pick up the added workload.”

Arrasmith said Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers set up in some of the burned manufactured home parks are federal government property and not subject to property taxes.

During the meeting with county commissioners this week, County Administrator Danny Jordan said there are a few key staff members in the tax assessor’s office who carry out complicated functions, but there aren’t cross-trained staff members to act as backup to carry out that work.

Spivak said that is a major concern.

“No organization should ever be dependent on one person. That’s just a recipe for failure,” he said.

Spivak said tax assessor’s office staff said they are working on cross-training for one of the most critical management jobs. Spivak said Arrasmith said the person in training has about 30% of the knowledge so far needed to back up that position.

“It’s an incredibly important task that they really need to focus on, prioritize and accomplish. According to them, they are working toward it and they have made some progress toward it,” Spivak said.

Arrasmith provided a mixed message about the key position in his email to the Mail Tribune.

“We do a lot of cross-training,” he said. “The one position, referred to in the meeting is a management position. Normally when a position vacates, we are an equal opportunity employer, and we offer the position to the public and hire the best applicant. We should probably not try to groom a non-management person to fill this position, and promise it to that person, before offering that position to the best applicant.”

During a Nov. 2 special election, Jackson County voters will decide whether they want to keep electing a tax assessor, or if the person in that position should be hired and under the supervision of the county administrator. The county administrator is a hired staff person who reports to elected Jackson County commissioners.

Arguments for electing a tax assessor include that the person could be more responsive to taxpayers and — with the independence of being elected — could face less pressure from government to maximize tax revenue.

Arguments for hiring a tax assessor include that the county could require more experience and education for a job that has become highly technical, the tax assessor could avoid the distractions of campaigning every four years, and an assessor could be fired for poor performance without voters having to mount a recall effort.

Years ago, voters rejected county charter amendments that would have turned the elected tax assessor, county surveyor and county clerk posts into hired positions.

Voters are not being asked this November whether to make the county clerk and county surveyor hired positions.

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