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3-Way Assessor Race a Taxing Ordeal

ORANGE COUNTY ELECTIONS

Incumbent Guillory, challengers Bales and Lebeau face the task of getting voters to grasp what the job is -- and then to care who gets it.

May 14, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

Not that many voters have noticed -- or cared, depending on whom you ask -- but there's a battle brewing at the bottom of ballots next month for Orange County assessor.

The three contenders for the nonpartisan post make for an eclectic crew of candidates.

Running for reelection is Webster J. Guillory, a registered independent who has served for the last eight years and has been in the assessment business for nearly three decades.

Then there are his two Republican opponents. Larry Bales, who worked in the assessor's office for 30 years, is running for a fifth time after four defeats. Mike Lebeau touts strong endorsements and 14 years of experience in property tax assessments in his first race.

Unlike the county's more prominent politicians, these candidates face challenges that go beyond defeating the other guy. The first involves getting voters to realize what an assessor does. Another is getting them to care about who is chosen.

"People have no idea what he does," said Jim Bone, a Los Angeles property tax professional who ran for county assessor in 1998 but lost to Guillory. "It's going to end up like all the other down-ballot races and nobody's going to care."

The assessor, with a 350-person office, is responsible for setting the taxable value of property and administering state exemptions to the county's property owners. Property taxes levied by state and local governments use property values set by the assessor.

The assessor's job pays $145,912 a year.

Last year, Orange County assessed property values totaled $339.2 billion, the second highest in the state after Los Angeles County's $855.8 billion, said Robert Knowles, a spokesman at the Los Angeles County assessor's office.

A self-described "simple, straightforward" guy, Guillory said running the assessor's office is akin to running a business, except the CEO is up for election every four years.

"This office doesn't dabble in politics. We just work to apply the law," said Guillory, 62, a Newport Beach resident and the first black countywide official elected in Orange County. The other two candidates are white.

Guillory has raised $4,300 for his campaign and added $38,400 in loans. He is endorsed by the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Bales, who retired after years in the assessor's office, helped expose corruption in county government. In 1974, he testified before the grand jury to help convict a former assessor and congressman who was accused of bribery and misusing public funds.

Bales has run for office "a bunch" of times before, but if he doesn't win this year, he says it will be his last trip on the campaign trail.

"The only thing I can do is yell and scream, but if I don't have $1 million to spend on [my campaign], the public's going" to get taken advantage of, said Bales, who has $18,500 in loans but hasn't raised any money for his campaign. "You've got to have some inkling of what's going on."

Bales, 65, of Tustin, criticized the office for over-assessing Disneyland Resort by $1.2 billion in the '90s, which resulted in a $2.6-million tax refund in 2003. Guillory said the Disney tax refund was large because Disney is a large company.

Lebeau was also critical. "I don't believe the taxpayers are being well served," he said. "You'd think they'd get the numbers right."

A senior tax counsel at the Board of Equalization, Lebeau helped write the state Assessor's Handbook and started his career at the Los Angeles County assessor's office.

Lebeau, 37, of Orange, is backed by the Orange County Republican Party, Family Action Political Action Committee, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) and others. He has raised $6,150 for his campaign and acquired $10,000 in loans.

Lebeau and Bales are stressing the importance of protecting Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 ballot measure that restricts annual increases in assessments.

Guillory said that he, too, is a supporter of Proposition 13. He noted that courts have upheld it and it isn't in danger.

Property owners may appeal the assessor's decisions, but few do. The assessor's office reported 8,519 appeals in its 2004-05 fiscal year, or about 1% of the 1,027,454 properties it assessed last year.

"We have appeals every year. They're part of the process," Guillory said. "We never tell folks that we're perfect, but we work very hard."

Outsiders doubt whether issues will matter much. Political experts say races like these don't often stir up a lot of enthusiasm.

With the candidates' fate often in the hands of ill-informed or uninterested voters, political experts say, voters will probably keep the incumbent or pick a candidate with an impressive job title on the ballot.

"Anything down low [on the ballot] just doesn't get that much attention," said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange.

"Their thing is, 'If I haven't heard any bad news, I guess he's doing an OK job.' "

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