As former Inyo County Assessor Thomas Lanshaw said in a recent phone interview, being the Assessor is a thankless exercise. “No one ever called me up and said good job.”
But did anyone ever call a meeting with him to ask him to quit?
Over the past few weeks, the Inyo Supervisors, acting in their capacity as the Board of Equalization, have been ensconced in a tax appeal hearing.
Xanterra, the corporate entity which owns Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, has filed a tax appeal for 2018-2019 and the years going forward.
The company and Inyo County Assessor Dave Stottlemyre had agreed before the first hearing held Sept. 6 on a $9 million reduction in assessed value.
According to back-of-the-napkin math by Inyo CAO Leslie Chapman, 1% of $9 million = $90,000/year that the county would be on the hook to refund, plus interest, for five years ($450,000) with 60% going to schools, 30% to the county & 10% to other agencies.
Government hates to give back money. So the Supes stalled on the stipulated agreement between Stottlemyre and Xanterra, asking for more information (i.e. kicking the can down the road) until the September 20 meeting.
On September 7, Stottlemyre says he was called into Chapman’s office. She told him the Board had no confidence in him and asked him to resign.
The meeting was attended by Stottlemyre, Chapman, and an attorney invited by Chapman who was sitting on the call over Zoom on Chapman’s laptop.
According to Stottlemyre, Chapman told him there were complaints about him from stakeholders like school superintendents, concerns over roll values, and complaints from Supervisors about not getting the appeal information in a timely manner, affecting prep time available before the Xanterra hearing. Supes were also miffed about the unseemly look of the county having to claw back money from schools due to a revised assessment.
“The Board is distancing itself from you,” Chapman told Stottlemyre.
*Stottlemyre, by the way, was reelected this past June to another four-year term. He ran unopposed. He has no intention of resigning, and the Board has no legal authority to replace him. The Board could tighten the purse strings and make Stottlemyre’s life miserable by gutting his department funding, but that would be akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.
Department funding has been an issue for several years.
Staff-wise, the Inyo County Assessor’s office, according to Stottlemyre, currently has seven employees, including the Assessor. Three are appraisers, but one of the appraisers has only been on the job six months and the other has been on board for just a few weeks.
As Stottlemyre says, it really takes a year of training and familiarity before new staffers can get up to speed.
“He is short-staffed,” said the former Assessor, who added, “I used to have an auditor-appraiser plus two property appraisers and I was a working assessor as well … It takes at least a year to get people up to speed – maybe even longer for someone who assesses business property.”
As Lanshaw says, he remembers one work conference where the host politician joked, “I want you to appraise often and high.”
But an assessor has to balance the demands of the taxeaters (more, more, more) with the demands of the taxpayers (less, less, less) and achieve some sort of equitable balance.
There is wide latitude and various methods appraisers can use. And sometimes, what may make no sense to an outsider makes perfect sense to an appraiser. For example, Lanshaw says you can remodel and put a roof on your house, and yeah, that roof may make the house more valuable, but it’s considered maintenance. So the new roof doesn’t increase the valuation (at least for tax purposes) by one penny.
The issue regarding the Xanterra assessment is that Xanterra insists that much of its remodel should be classified as maintenance, regardless of how much money it invested or what the property might now fetch on the open market.
Problem is, there is photographic evidence that a whole lot of Xanterra’s “remodel” was actually new construction and Stottlemyre may have been better served not compromising on the initial assessment.
Lanshaw said big business appealing tax assessments is nothing new.
“I would always fight Coso [Energy],” he said. “There was not one year where they wouldn’t file an appeal. So I’d bring in a third party. And eventually you’d get to a number. There were only 2-3 years where we didn’t (and the Board of Equalization would have to be called in to referee).”
What Lanshaw points out as a key difference between then and now is cost-of-living.
“I was always able to hire local,” he says [A four-year degree is a requirement for appraisal work].” But the big problem now is housing.
“My daughter wants to move back here and was offered a job at Inyo County Health,” he says, “but there’s no place to rent or buy.” So she couldn’t take the job.
On Tuesday at the continued tax appeal hearing, Xanterra representative Lonnie Clark, perhaps sensing Board and public displeasure with the Assessor, made a case that the company’s property should be assessed using a different (income) method.
While Lunch is no expert, he assumed that if you have a resort under construction, followed by a pandemic, maybe those numbers will skew lower, and make the valuation lower.
But she initially offered a sop that Xanterra would agree to waive refunds for over-assessment of the three-year period prior to the 2021-2022 tax year – if the income approach is used.
CAO Chapman disagreed with my take. She said the change in methodology suggestion was unrelated to Clark’s offer to forego refunds, but that offer is now off the table.
Supes eventually decided to kick the can down the road (again) and have Stottlemyre hire a 3rd party appraiser to redo the whole thing.
The California BOE issued a report in July titled “Inyo County Supplemental Practices Survey.”
The BOE regularly audits assessor’s offiuces around the state.
The BOE referenced its previous report in 2017, which made four recommendations.
Of the four recommendations, the BOE said Assessor Stottlemyre has partially implemented just one.
One of the recommendations was related to audits. County Assessors are supposed to perform 12 per year; 6 from the largest business properties located within the County and then 6 from among all other businesses.
The report stated Stottlemyre had completed just 3/48 audits between 2015-2016 and 2018-2019.
When asked if that record had improved since, Stottlemyre told The Sheet, “I haven’t done audits in six years and probably won’t get to it this year.”
“Every assessor is audited by the BOE,” he explained.”My response [in regard to the criticism] is I don’t have the staff.
And then the county administration tells me to stop whining.”
Supervisor Jeff Griffiths replied tersely, “We have offered him every form of assistance.”
Stottlemyre contends that the Board is fixated upon its Reserve account. “Meanwhile, people don’t have the money to do their jobs. And it’s not just my department.”