Jelena Butler for Property Assessor

Jelena Butler for Property Assessor

July 24th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Jelena Butler

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Bill Bennett is basing his bid for re-election as assessor of property on the experience he's gathered over the past 18 years in the office, and that may well pull him through this election. And if he were not in his mid-70s and aiming for a well-deserved retirement in a year or two, his re-election might again be uncontested, as in the past two elections. But this time around, the equation is different -- and there is a compelling reason to change the status-quo.

For starters, Bennett's chief opponent, Jelena Butler, is a tech-savy commercial real estate veteran who offers a significant edge in assessment experience through her current professional work in the sales, leasing and marketing of commercial, industrial, residential and mixed-use properties. She's more energetic and aggressive. And she clearly expresses the goal of taxpayer fairness by seeing that the value of land held for speculative development, along with businesses' personal property, is appropriately assessed. She can point to several easy examples of questionably assessed land and property which, if assessed at higher values, could help local governments lower the overall tax burden for other property owners.

Her relevant experience for the job is much greater than Bennett possessed when he took over the assessor's job in 1994 via a mid-term appointment courtesy of his then-fellow County Commissioners. Bennett had worked for Combustion Engineering and then in insurance. But he got the assessor's job through politics on the County Commission -- the same way his successor would get it if Bennett retires before his term expires.

Beyond that, Butler's qualifications -- and potential election -- offer a timely change away from the reappraisal issue which for years has been used to justify the re-election of the incumbent. It's time to let go of that one-two punch.

Now, as in the past, the current assessor can say that it wouldn't be good for voters to turn out the incumbent on the eve of the state-mandated countywide property reappraisal, which occurs every four years. This year, for example, the person elected to the assessor's office will assume office in September, and then begin readying the office for the countywide reappraisal slated for 2013.

The justification that a newly elected assessor can't be as prepared as the incumbent for the quadrennial countywide reappraisal is self-perpetuating, of course. By that reckoning, an incumbent can never replaced in an election, and the incumbent's successor to the office will always get the job in a mid-term political hand-off from the County Commission. That makes it a wrongly gotten sinecure -- a political position always to be traded as a political favor.

This is a good election year to change that tired dynamic. Though the assessor's office is deemed to be a partisan office -- like those of the sheriff, county clerk, trustee and other constitutional offices -- the office does not involve partisan politics. Rather, its functions are those of technical nature -- the accurate market-based appraisal valuation of the county's various parcels of property, which is necessary for local governments to fix a property tax rate. Bennett may be a Republican, and Butler may run as a Democrat, but in this office, these labels don't matter: It would be misfeasance for an assessor to deliberately alter the appraisal of property as a political favor.

Butler's business credentials for responsibilities of the assessor's office are comprehensive. Her broad business experience also includes database development. That would help her oversee the implementation of the new software the assessor's office will bring online in September to execute the quadrennial, state-mandated countywide reappraisal.

Bennett, to be sure, has earned distinction for his past service -- and that of the well-experienced staff he has wisely kept and promoted. His honors, once as the state's assessor of the year, and presently as the sole county assessor on the state Board of Equalization, testify to his diligence and service since he took office. But the question now is how the office will be led if he retires, as expected, before the conclusion of the next term. The election of Butler in the Aug. 2 election would secure the role of voters in choosing Bennett's successor.