August 3, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Baker proves he’s worth retaining in assessor post


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

We’ve been hearing a lot about low morale and ineffective leadership in the Spokane County Assessor’s Office. Assessor Ralph Baker discounts the accusations, but the crowded field of five challengers in the primary election makes them hard to ignore.

The rivals have lodged mostly anecdotal complaints about matters ranging from inconsistent training approaches to the inability of citizens to get direct answers.

More important, though, the accuracy and fairness of property appraisals are cause for satisfaction. When the state House of Representatives’ Office of Program Research studied all 39 county assessors’ performance, it ranked Spokane County consistently in the top third for accuracy and in the top two or three for uniformity, which is another word for fairness.

In addition, the incumbent has established a comprehensive and user-friendly website that even some of his opponents like. He has embraced technology to improve accuracy and save money.

Can any of the five challengers improve on that generally strong performance?

Vicki Horton has nine years’ experience as an appraiser in the office. Sadie Charlene Cooney held the assessor’s job for a decade. Andy Jackson is an experienced software programmer with skills to make sure electronic property value records are managed efficiently. Gina McKenzie has a quarter century in real estate. Lori Wick has a strong accounting and auditing background, plus a courthouse insider’s familiarity gained as a county fiscal grants specialist and a recording cashier for the county auditor.

Too bad no one candidate has that full set of credentials. In fact, only three candidates in the six-person field have college degrees, and one is Baker. Only three have experience in the assessor’s office, and one is Baker.

Baker’s chief drawback seems to be impatience. His early push to engage technology was off-putting to citizens who are more comfortable visiting the office in person than online. Even he admits that a phone-menu answering system installed after he took office was a mistake.

At present, an aerial photography system he purchased to help pick up new construction and property improvements has been attacked. Some critics say he should merely use Google or similar search features, but his approach is more likely to generate information tailored to the county’s needs.

It’s no surprise that appraisers in the field and candidates out ringing doorbells hear complaints about an office that influences property owners’ tax bills and sellers’ asking prices.

In contrast, the Office of Program Research did an independent, data-based assessment, applying standards set by the International Association of Assessing Officers, and found that the Spokane County Assessor’s Office does well in aligning property valuations with market value, and especially well at spreading the tax burden fairly.

Baker should take a look at the management issues his challengers have cited, but the dominant consideration for voters is about accuracy and fairness, areas in which Baker’s record is compelling. He has earned another stint in office.

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