Despite LA Assessor’s Problems, an Assessor Should be Elected

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

Cries that assessors should be appointed rather than elected have surfaced in Los Angeles because county assessor, John Noguez, is in trouble. It has been alleged that Norguez’s office reduced tax assessments on property for individuals who donated to the assessor’s campaign. The hue and cry over the situation has brought demands that the assessor resign his office and that the position of assessor be changed from an elected one to an appointed one.

The wheels of justice will determine if Noguez did anything illegal – he has not been charged with any crime as of this writing. An appraiser who worked in his office was arrested and accused of unlawfully lowering property tax assessments by $172 million. District Attorney Steve Cooley suggested the assessor resign, as has the chairman of the Assembly Local Government Committee, Cameron Smyth. Norguez has denied any wrongdoing.

Long time county supervisor, Mike Antonovich, called for an advisory vote on the November ballot to determine whether the assessor should be elected or appointed.

The continuous debate on an elected versus an appointed assessor is not surprising. As tax historian, Dave Doerr, has written, “Perhaps the only constant in the entire history of taxation in California from 1850 to date has been the problem with county assessors and their assessment practices.”

The question of how a local assessor gains his or her position goes back to the state’s beginnings and has been debated into modern times.

The 1879 state constitution removed the requirement for elected assessors. As recently as 1988, Proposition 66 established that assessors should be elected in both chartered and non-chartered counties. The measure received a unanimous vote in the legislature to be put on the ballot and passed with a near 3 to 1 landslide vote.

It is not surprising voters were so strongly in favor of having an elected assessor and the actions of any one assessor should not change that position from elected to appointed. By being elected, the assessor is held directly responsible by taxpayers. If appointed, an assessor’s immediate bosses would be members of the county board of supervisors.

If tax receipts are low, supervisors could crank up the pressure on their appointee to produce more revenue.  This is especially true in times of tight budgets to meet demands from those who rely on tax dollars to squeeze every dollar possible from the taxpayers. An independent assessor can best withstand such pressure.

Of course, prosecutors, the media, officials who hold a public trust and voters, themselves, should be wary of any public official who offers special privileges and corrupts their office. However, property taxpayers are in a stronger position when they elect the tax assessor.

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