Tax and defend

Realtor takes on interim assessor who took over office from boss who abruptly resigned

Christina Wynn, left, and Kate Van Buren are competing to be Sacramento County’s next elected assessor amid an investigation into the office’s management.

Christina Wynn, left, and Kate Van Buren are competing to be Sacramento County’s next elected assessor amid an investigation into the office’s management.

photos courtesy of the wynn for assessor and Van buren assessor 2018 campaigns

The timing for the upcoming election for Sacramento County assessor is interesting, to say the least.

On June 5, voters will decide whether quasi-incumbent Christina Wynn or realtor Kate Van Buren will lead the office that helps set the value of the county's more than 500,000 parcels, which in turn determines property tax amounts.

Days before the ballots will be counted, meanwhile, the results of a county-commissioned investigation into numerous allegations of impropriety by the office's leadership are expected. The findings could either rock or reinforce one of the most quietly powerful departments in Sacramento County, but they may come too late to shape a race that hinges on whether the assessor's office operates fairly.

The allegations, summarized in a story by The Sacramento Bee in May 2017, include ones that top brass received artificially low assessments—and thus, lower tax bills—as well as complaints of favoritism, harassment and management issues. Wynn's predecessor Kathleen Kelleher abruptly retired for unspecified health reasons weeks before The Bee's story broke on this investigation and two other internal ones the county had launched.

The county subsequently found “no evidence of policy violations,” The Bee reported, though the paper determined that Kelleher and former assistant assessor John Solie had “received significantly lower valuations for residential property than adjacent property owners did, though the homes were around the same size and age.”

The question now for voters is if they want to invest their faith in a member of the establishment in Wynn, who's worked for the office for 17 years, or gamble on Van Buren, a political neophyte who, if anyone's wondering, is related to the eighth president of the United States through her husband (and, prior to this, was married to the late James Woolley, a former touring member of Nine Inch Nails).

Wynn told SN&R she wasn't aware of serious improprieties.

“If people have legitimate concerns, I would definitely want to deal with that,” said Wynn, a 50-year-old Carmichael resident. “If there's any kind of unethical behaviors, mistreatment of employees, I would never tolerate that. … But so far, I haven't had anything brought to me that was of that level.”

The Board of Supervisors appointed Wynn, an assistant assessor, to fill the remainder of Kelleher's term on June 15, 2017. She said she's proud of her time as interim assessor and that her office was finalizing the launch of an Oracle-based information management system that will replace its 40-year-old system.

“Overall, I believe it's been a very successful year,” Wynn said. “We've got quite a few accomplishments.”

Van Buren, who's 49, lives in Curtis Park and ran unsuccessfully for the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education in 2014, has other views about the current state of the assessor's office. She said she kept an eye on the race for some time and entered at the deadline in early March, after no one else filed.

“I feel an urgency that I didn't feel before,” Van Buren said. “Like, I knew things were really bad there but I had no idea the corruption that was going on.”

Van Buren said an “us versus them” culture exists between management and rank-and-file employees, with the latter at risk of being retaliated against for making complaints. Wynn didn't dispute that there was some divisiveness in the office.

“We do have some disgruntled employees and that's part of the issue that we've had,” Wynn said. “I've been committed to trying to get past that. It's been a big struggle because I'm not receiving a lot of that cooperation back at this point. There's union involvement and that kind of thing.”

The election, incidentally, coincides with contract talks between the county and employee union, the Assessor's Office for United Public Employees. The old contract expires this June.

Rick Reeve, a 23-year employee of the office, is scheduled to meet May 25 with other employees, a county human resources representative and attorney Eli Makus to review the results of the internal investigation from law firm Ellis Buehler Makus. Reeve isn't optimistic it will reveal the turmoil he believes the office is in.

“They can never do an investigation that's unbiased because they have pressure on them never to admit liability,” Reeve said.

Wynn had outraised Van Buren $4,500 to $1,600 as of May 3, according to county records.

Reeve estimated that only one-fourth of the office currently supports Van Buren’s candidacy. But his union’s endorsed her.

“We have a chance now of changing at the top,” Reeve said.