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Perspective

Independence Is Assessor's Strongest Suit

September 08, 1997|JEAN O. PASCO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tone of the memo delivered to county supervisors last week was ominous: "Please be put on notice that some work will not be done in a timely manner, some might not be done at all, and responsibility for this is with the Board of Supervisors."

The missive came from Assessor Bradley L. Jacobs, warning supervisors that their decision last month to deny $395,000 in funding within Jacobs' $18-million budget for fiscal year 1997-98 could result in next year's tax roll being delayed or undervalued.

Jacobs was equally dire some eight years earlier when he and the board squared off over $407,000 for a new computer system.

"It's going to be very uncomfortable and very unpleasant," Jacobs said, though he got the money two weeks later. "It's going to undoubtedly impact our effectiveness."

Uncomfortable is a good way to describe what has become a nearly institutional feud between Jacobs, the county's elected assessor since 1978, and the board, whose ranks have included 20 different supervisors during Jacobs' tenure.

Alternately described as arrogant, outstanding, stubborn and innovative, Jacobs has never been a team player within the county government he joined in 1976. He was appointed assessor after a scandal that drove his predecessor, Andrew Hinshaw, to jail for using employees to assist his congressional campaign.

A physicist, Jacobs was recruited from outside county government as a reformer to assume the role "as someone uninhibited by the bureaucracy," said County Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville, who covered the Hinshaw scandal as a reporter.

Jacobs has spent the last 21 years assiduously maintaining that independence, viewing himself as executive manager of a "monopoly government enterprise" who responds to "retail customers" (the public) and "wholesale customers" (the county's 502 taxing entities). The state Constitution requires the assessor's elected independence, along with the sheriff's and district attorney's.

The latest showdown has again pitted Jacobs against the board.

The supervisors told Jacobs he must apply for a state Department of Finance loan to pay for the $395,000 he says he needs for 16 more people. The county was eligible for up to $6.8 million a year; millions of dollars in loans to 40 other counties already have been forgiven by the state.

Jacobs refused, saying he would have to add the 16 people to even meet the qualifications for getting the money in the first place. In essence, he argued, he would have to borrow the money to qualify to borrow the money, with no guarantee that the county wouldn't have to pay it back.

"If we had 16 more people, we wouldn't need the money," Jacobs said.

Another thing bothered him: County officials were acting as if the state loan would be "free" money. In fact, he said, it originates from the same taxpayers.

Jim Bone, a certified public accountant in Lake Forest and former assessment appeals board chairman, said Jacobs' often abrupt style, not job performance, is the root of his difficulties with the board.

"He's doing a very good job of his principal responsibility, better today than in the past," Bone said. "But I'd define the job as more than that. He should be providing information and communicating [to supervisors], to taxpayers and all of the rest of his customers. It's those relationships at times that can get very rough."

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Jacobs' aloofness is legendary. When county employees held a fund-raiser after the county's 1994 bankruptcy, every department provided food or booths except the assessor. Last year, Jacobs sent a memo banning fliers for things like bake sales and blood drives in his department, saying it detracted from "our professional presentation to the public" and damaged the paint.

Granville was rebuffed several months ago when he attempted to persuade supervisors to combine his office with Jacobs' to save about $700,000 a year. He said Jacobs refused to discuss an audit of how the two departments could pare duplication costs.

"Brad is a friend. However, he's the most difficult person to do business with under any circumstances, even when you're fighting for the same cause," Granville said. "He and his staff come to the table with their minds already set and, in my experience, have been unwilling to listen to any alternatives."

Jacobs said he said he makes up his mind only after evaluating the facts; if the facts change, he's willing to reconsider.

As for the $395,000 he's out for next year, Jacobs said he intends to operate his department as well as possible.

"People here work very effectively," he said. An April audit by the State Board of Equalization "named us the most efficient assessor's office in the state."

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Perspective is a weekly column highlighting trends and events that define Orange County or an in-depth look at an issue affecting the county. Readers are invited to call Los Angeles Times correspondent Jean O. Pasco at (714) 564-1052 or send an e-mail to Jean.Pasco@latimes.com

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