Assessing the big race

Oft-overlooked office might be biggest battle in 2014 primaries

Al Petersen was the first person to announce his candidacy for the assessor’s post.

Al Petersen was the first person to announce his candidacy for the assessor’s post.

PHOTO Courtesy of al petersen

During the June 2012 primary election, the Congressional seat left vacant by longtime incumbent Wally Herger was understandably the hottest contest, with a field of eight candidates vying for the position Herger held since 1978.

But as the Friday, March 7, deadline to “pull papers”—or retrieve nomination documents—from the Butte County Elections Office approaches, it appears this election’s biggest battle will be for the less prominent position of Butte County assessor.

As of Tuesday, March 4, six candidates had retrieved documents for the position currently held by Fred Holland, who has been assessor since 2009 and announced in January that he will not run for re-election. The candidates are Al Petersen, Bill Connelly, Rudy Rindlisbacher, Virgle Gage, Diane Brown and Blake T. Bailey.

Bill Connelly, whose term on the Butte County Board of Supervisors expires in 2017, is the candidate with the most name recognition. If elected assessor, he would have to leave the board.

The number of candidates in the field raises the question of why the position is so coveted, but a more immediate question for many citizens is just what a county assessor does.

The Butte County Assessor’s Office website outlines the duties as follows: “Locates and identifies all taxable property in the county; establishes taxable value for all property subject to property taxation; completes the assessment roll showing the assessed values of all properties; applies all legal exemptions.”

Petersen, a Chico resident who currently serves as the chief appraiser for the Sutter County Assessor’s Office, was the first to announce his bid for the position in October. He further described the assessor’s responsibilities, noting some properties must be appraised yearly, while others are valued only when there is a transfer of ownership or construction. Petersen said the assessor passes these values along to the Auditor-Controller’s Office, which determines how much taxes are paid. Taxes are then collected by the county’s Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Department.

Petersen said educating the public about what the assessor does is part of his platform, especially since property taxes are often a source of controversy and anger.

“Even though not many people pay attention to it, and the office is always kind of out of the public eye, it’s extremely important, because it affects every single resident in the county, maybe more than any other single office,” he said. “Whether you rent or own a home, if you live in Butte County, this is your money, and taxpayers need to understand where the money goes and how it’s handled.

“I’d like there to be more public interaction with the office, through workshops and outreach, to better educate people so they know what the assessor does, before they find themselves in a situation where they have to call us.”

Petersen noted that the job of assessor is a nonpartisan service position, meaning the assessor’s duty is solely to carry out—rather than create—policy, implying that those with strong political backgrounds might not be the best fit for the job.

“Just like the sheriff, the tax collector, and the auditor, the assessor’s job isn’t to make the laws, but to apply them impartially and fairly,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to have a lot of political influence in the office because you wouldn’t want to provide services differently to different parts of the political spectrum.”

Petersen also said he hopes that whoever wins the race has a strong background in property values and tax laws: “If you go to a restaurant and the owner doesn’t know how to cook or set the table or do any of the other jobs, he might be able to hire and assign people to do those things for him, but the quality of the food and the service will definitely be lacking.”

Heated competition for the local assessor’s seat is not without precedent. In 2009, when then-Butte County Assessor Ken Reimers retired, 15 candidates applied for the position, including current candidate Brown and Chico City Councilman Randall Stone. Holland won the appointment, and was elected to the position in 2010.

Perhaps part of the job’s draw is the salary: In 2012, Holland received $126,245 in regular pay. In his current position on the Board of Supervisors, Connelly in turn made $53,014.03.

Candidate and businessman Gage formerly faced off against Connelly in the 2012 election for 1st District supervisor’s seat. Rindlisbacher is an Oroville real estate agent. Bailey is currently serving as Butte County’s assistant assessor.