July 31, 2010 in City

Six candidates vie for county assessor

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Fast fact

• The county assessor’s annual salary is $88,350.

Spokane County Assessor Ralph Baker has more challengers than a bear has fleas – and he picked up one of them, appraiser Vicki Horton, in his own den.

The den used to belong to another of Baker’s five opponents, former Assessor Sadie Charlene Cooney.

Other challengers are Lori Wick, a county grant specialist and former deputy auditor; real estate broker Gina McKenzie; and software engineer Andrew Jackson.

Generally, the challengers fault Baker for allegedly failing to add some new construction to the tax rolls, alienating staff members and reducing public access to the office.

Baker responds that he has greatly reduced a stack of inherited problems, including untaxed construction. He says he has improved public access with a website that gives details on every property in the county.

A 2008 tax appraisal performance study by the state House of Representatives’ Office of Program Research lists Spokane County as one of 12 top-performing counties.

Even Baker’s challengers give his website high marks. But his belt-sander approach to problems has generated controversy since he took office in January 2005.

Baker was criticized for removing visitor chairs from what he said was supposed to have been a private work area, for installing an unpopular telephone answering system, for tightening enforcement of restrictions on timber and agriculture tax exemptions and, this year, for a six-year, $560,000 contract for aerial photography that allows appraisers to locate and measure new buildings.

A disputed whistleblower complaint by a former appraiser contended a large number of new buildings weren’t promptly assessed.

Several of Baker’s challengers, including Horton and Cooney, fault the way Baker manages his staff.

Cooney also is no stranger to criticism.

In 1998, the state auditor issued a scathing analysis of her performance. And in 2002, a judge fined her $3,000 for a second campaign-law violation: using county equipment and employees in a re-election campaign.

The county paid more than $180,000 to fight and settle a legal claim that Cooney retaliated against employees who didn’t support her 1998 campaign.

“I just hope people have forgiven me so we can move on,” Cooney said.

Former state Rep. Duane Sommers defeated Cooney in 2002. He resigned after two years, and Baker was appointed to replace him.


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