L.A. County Assessor John Noguez appears in court last October. (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)
An audit of the embattled Los Angeles County assessor's office released late Thursday recommends key changes, including the appointment of a chief deputy with "managerial competence" and the requirement that private tax consultants register with the county.
Conducted by Strategica Inc., the audit comes as elected Assessor John Noguez fights accusations that he pocketed $185,000 in bribes from a prominent tax consultant and campaign contributor who requested lower tax appraisals on client properties.
Though the audit did not comment specifically on Noguez's alleged malfeasance, its authors wrote that the controversy had helped undermine public confidence in the department with potentially grave results.
"If taxpayers feel that the property tax system in Los Angeles County is being gamed by politically connected taxpayers or contributors to the Assessor's political campaigns then they will be tempted to game the system themselves to re-establish equity," the auditors wrote.
As a means of improving overall management of the department and restoring integrity, auditors said, the county charter should be amended so that supervisors could appoint a permanent chief deputy with strong management and tax assessment skills. Doing so would ensure institutional knowledge and continuity as newly elected assessors rotate through the post.
The position also would make up for the elected official's operational shortcomings.
"The criteria for being the Assessor is not management experience but rather the number of votes received," the auditors wrote.
To avoid potential abuses or the perception of favoritism, the county should adopt new rules that essentially treat tax agents as lobbyists, requiring them to register with the county, prohibiting them from offering gifts and outlining exactly which officials they are authorized to negotiate with.
The audit released Thursday is one of four that have been commissioned by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It will be formally presented to the board Tuesday.
Among other findings, auditors cited a significant "brain drain" in the assessor's office: 44% of its senior managers have left since 2010 and have been replaced by managers who lack experience or training in running a department. Additionally, the report said, staffers have been given very little supervisory or management training since 2007.
The assessor's office oversees 2.4 million parcels and has a staff of almost 1,400 employees, making it the largest assessment jurisdiction in the nation.
In the last five years, the office has seen the number of assessment appeals quadruple. That increased workload, combined with an antiquated computer system, has greatly increased staff workload, according to the report. Auditors recommended establishing a $35 fee for the filing of all assessment appeals, to help offset expenses and to deter frivolous appeals.
Supervisors called for the audit in April after several stories by The Times about allegations that Noguez and his staff were giving tax breaks to political supporters, who then donated to Noguez's campaign fund. About the same time, Noguez gave two conflicting projections of 2012-2013 tax roll revenues. In December 2011, Noguez estimated that the county's property tax base would grow by $18.7 billion, but then changed the number to $5.1 billion.
So far, the ongoing probe at the assessor's office has resulted in the arrests of Noguez, his chief deputy Mark McNeil, former county appraiser Scott Schenter and private tax consultant Ramin Salari. All four have pleaded not guilty to numerous charges, including conspiracy, bribery and misappropriation of public funds.
To date, auditors have completed three of four audits that the board has requested. The next audit will focus on properties with reductions in value exceeding 20%.