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Predicts Easy Win for Seat on Equalization Panel : Tax Board Incumbent Confident

October 31, 1986|JOHN NEEDHAM and KENNETH F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writers

Even 32-year-old Mark Buckley of Huntington Beach concedes that there's about as much chance of snow on his doorstep as there is of his being elected to the state Board of Equalization on Tuesday.

"I don't think it would take a miracle," Buckley said in assessing his chances in the race for one of the more obscure but better-paid positions on the ballot. "I'm a long shot."

The incumbent in the race for the 3rd District seat on the board, Ernest J. Dronenburg Jr. of San Diego, has held the office for eight years. He can take comfort from the knowledge that in the 107-year history of the board, only four incumbents have lost bids for reelection--and one of them was defeated by Dronenburg in 1978.

"I think we are going to win with a substantial margin," said Dronenburg, 43, of El Cajon. "My opponent does not seem to be able to raise any money. We have a budget of just over $100,000. We're looking at direct mail and some newspaper advertisements and some rural radio (ads).

'Right Party'

"I think we will win, especially with a district that's 48% Republican and 40% Democratic. Being the incumbent Republican is the right party to be in."

The board district that Dronenburg, Buckley and candidates of the Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties want to represent covers eight counties--Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, Inyo, Kern and Mono--and has nearly 3 million voters, from Yosemite National Park to the Mexican border.

The board consists of four elected members and a fifth seat that is filled by the state controller. The job will pay $82,000 a year starting in January, putting board members' salaries behind only those of the governor and Supreme Court justices among state officials.

The board deals directly or indirectly with most taxes raised in the state. It collects and distributes revenue from sales, gas and cigarette levies. It acts as an appeals board for individuals and businesses over state income taxes. Its interpretations and applications of complex laws can cost or save businesses millions of dollars.

Buckley is on leave from the Orange County assessor's office, where he works as a deputy assessor. He says one of his main campaign planks is to change the homeowner's state property tax exemption from the $7,000 a year that was established in 1974--before home prices started shooting up--to 20% of assessed valuation, with a cap of perhaps $250,000. That way, he says, someone with a $150,000 home would pay taxes on $120,000 of assessed valuation, still a hefty bill but one with "a little bit of the harshness taken out."

Would Double Exemption

Buckley also pledges to double the homeowner's exemption for senior citizens. Now, he says, a retired couple wanting to sell a $150,000 home but paying low, pre-Proposition 13 taxes of maybe $400 a year can get hit hard if they sell "and buy a nice place in Hemet for $120,000." They would like the $30,000 in equity, he says, but "we're popping them with a $1,400 bill on their new home."

Dronenburg says of Buckley's plans: "That's a lot of money. Where's he going to get it?"

He said he would prefer to give homeowners a higher state tax exemption, equal to that given to renters. In his next term, Dronenburg said, he wants "to make the tax system simpler and more equitable." Additionally, as head of an association of tax administrators from 14 western states, Dronenburg would like to bring the tax laws of the states closer to each other.

Last summer, Dronenburg and several business associates were the subject of a federal investigation that began after a Carlsbad savings and loan institution of which he was an unpaid director was declared insolvent after losing $21 million in two weeks on highly speculative options trades.

Dronenburg and one other director of the failed Seapointe Savings & Loan Assn. were also directors of the YES Fund, a mutual fund managed by Ontario-based Strategic Investment Services, the firm that directed the investment strategy that led to Seapointe's demise.

Don Alexander, a regional official of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in San Francisco, said Thursday that the investigation of the business relationships had been turned over to the agency's general counsel in Washington. A spokeswoman there declined to comment on the case, except to say that there had been no lawsuits filed to date.

The spokeswoman would not say whether the investigation was still continuing.

Dronenburg has generally declined comment but has reiterated that he was not paid for being on the Seapointe board. However, his financial disclosure statement, filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, shows that he earned between $1,000 and $10,000 last year as a director of the YES Fund. State law does not require that he reveal the exact amount of the compensation.

Five years ago, Dronenburg said he would like to be state controller some day, a desire he still holds.

A former auditor for the state Board of Equalization and a one-time businessman, Dronenburg said he has the experience to be controller. He didn't run for that job this year because the incumbent quit too late.

"We were in the middle of our campaign (for reelection)," he said. "We were not going to turn our ship around in midstream. We'd promised too many people we'd run for reelection."

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