Eight years after Proposition 13 sharply restricted the power of county assessors, Los Angeles County voters are being asked if their independent, elected assessor should be reduced to the status of a department manager appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
If Proposition B on the June 3 ballot is approved, Los Angeles will be the first of the state's 58 counties to have an appointed assessor--the county official who establishes the taxable value of homes, businesses and certain kinds of personal property, such as boats and planes.
The measure is controversial because it proposes a fundamental change in the organization of county government, although proponents and opponents have run low-volume campaigns relying largely on free media.
Conservative members of the Board of Supervisors, who placed the measure on the ballot, argue that times have changed in the assessor's office.
"The job does not take a politician," said Supervisor Deane Dana, the leading proponent of Proposition B. "It's a mechanical job that takes the same sort of expertise as the Public Works Department, the Facilities Department or the Children's Service Department."
Dana claimed that the assessor's office generates about 30% of the complaints received by the supervisors, usually relating to wrong or missing tax bills. The department has not been properly staffed or automated to keep up with new complex, technical duties, he said.
"You have a politician and attorney running it," he said, referring to departing Assessor Alexander Pope, a political foe who ran against Dana for supervisor in 1984 and has clashed with board members over tax legislation.
But critics of Proposition B, including Pope, 1978 Proposition 13 author Howard Jarvis and liberal Supervisors Kenneth Hahn and Ed Edelman, say allowing the supervisors to appoint the assessor would subject the office to possible political manipulation by the board. Hahn has argued that the "power to tax is the power to destroy."
Pope, who is leaving the office to run for state Board of Equalization, said: "They want their toady in as assessor. They don't want the assessor doing anything inconsistent with their view of how the department ought to run or their position on legislation."
Dana acknowledged Pope's independent voice has become an irritant. "For five years we've seen the assessor go to Sacramento and take positions contrary to the Board of Supervisors," he said.
Agreement on Change
Both sides agree the power of the assessor has changed dramatically from the mid-1970s, when former Los Angeles County Assessor Philip Watson was one of the major news makers in Southern California. The target of protests and investigations, Watson oversaw a controversial annual program of mass property reassessments. Watson decided which communities would be reassessed, and that inevitably led to higher tax bills.
With passage of Proposition 13, reassessments were strictly limited to new construction or properties that were sold. The change cut the number of parcels reviewed annually in Los Angeles County from about 700,000 a year to about 200,000.
But now the assessor must maintain huge property title records and track all transactions that would trigger an evaluation. Also, because each parcel is reviewed individually, it is far more labor intensive than the old system, Pope said.
Edelman, an ally of Pope's, said the assessor "did the best job possible" and an appointed manager probably would not have made a difference.
Jarvis is critical of Pope's management of the office, but he disagrees with the conservative supervisors that the office should be appointive. "The real connection between government and the average citizen is the money he pays," Jarvis said. "I think the assessor has to be responsible to John Q. Public who pays the taxes."
Dana warned that future campaigns for assessor will be low-profile contests among little-known candidates, increasing the odds of an unqualified person winning. Voters would only be giving up "an opportunity to look at 13 candidates they know nothing about," he said.
Jarvis said there is no guarantee that "you have a perfect assessor if he is elected," but he said, "The people have a right to make a mistake, and the supervisors don't. . . . If the public doesn't like the assessor, they can vote some other guy in."
Along with Proposition B, several candidates for the $83,000-a-year assessor's job will be on the ballot, including Hahn's brother, Gordon. If the proposition is approved, the election will be void.