Vicki Horton says she’ll reorganize the Spokane County Assessor’s Office when she takes charge in January, but only Chief Deputy Assessor Kevin Best will be dismissed.
Best was recruited by Assessor Ralph Baker, whom Horton defeated with nearly 56.7 percent of the vote in the Nov. 2 general election.
As a staff appraiser, Horton currently answers to Best. The shoe will be on the other foot in January.
The chief deputy serves at the pleasure of the assessor without any job protection, but Horton wants to change that.
She said she wants her chief deputy to be a professional appraiser, capable of working shoulder-to-shoulder with staff appraisers.
“I want all of my people working,” Horton said. “I don’t want just figureheads.”
She plans to post the position and promote an employee, and wants that person to have a union right to return to the ranks. She’s working with the county human resources department to see what can be done.
Horton thinks the office is “a little top-heavy” with managers.
Other than Best, “People won’t lose jobs,” she said. “I’m just going to rotate things within the office.”
Her first priority, though, will be to make sure taxpayers can talk to an appraiser when they call the office and to make sure appraisers are “all on the same page.”
Horton said some appraisers have treated one kind of house differently from another, creating an “up-and-down rollercoaster” as sales patterns shift, she said.
“Say ranchers are selling and split-levels aren’t. Ranchers will get the adjustment and split-levels won’t,” Horton said. “Well, you have to look at what the neighborhood is doing as a whole and then adjust it – not just what is selling.”
Filling the position she will vacate also is a priority for Horton. The staff is lean and she won’t be able to beef it up by canceling a controversial contract for close-up aerial photography.
Baker persuaded county commissioners earlier this year to pay for a six-year, $560,000 contract with Pictometry, a Rochester, N.Y., company that provides several detailed, oblique-angle views of each property in the county.
The idea was to offset a $347,523 budget cut that cost Baker a half-dozen positions, but Horton considers the Pictometry contract a waste of money.
“It’s an expensive proposition and I really don’t think we need it,” Horton said. “You can’t appraise a house by a picture. Washington law requires us to physically visit those houses.”
Baker said he thought the photos would reduce the time needed for neighborhood visits and make it easier to spot unreported construction.
Previously, the assessor’s office relied on maplike, straight-down photos from an Avista-led coalition.
“The Avista pictures were fine,” Horton said.
Horton would like to use the Pictometry money to hire an appraiser, but county commissioners declined last week to do that.
“I’m not excited about trading the technology to go back to more employees,” Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
“She’s going to find it hard to finish her task (if the Pictometry contract is canceled), so I hope she doesn’t do that,” said Commissioner Mark Richard.
In an interview, Horton attributed Richard’s view to misinformation from Baker.
“The current administration has misled (commissioners) about what an appraiser actually has to do and can do,” Horton said.
She said her initial objection to the Pictometry contract was its cost, but “I got more and more feedback from the taxpayers that they felt it was an invasion of their privacy, so that’s a big concern.”
Horton said she won’t try to change next year’s $3.5 million assessor’s office budget, but she plans to revisit the Pictometry contract for 2012.
One thing that won’t change is the “awesome,” information-rich website Baker created, Horton said.
“That’s one thing I give credit to Ralph for,” she said. “He has brought us into the 21st century with our technology. That’s something he did very well.”
Horton said she believes her lopsided election victory over Baker was because “he felt he had it in the bag” and “didn’t do any campaigning at all.”
She said Baker was at only two of 15 to 20 community forums she attended.
“I went to everything,” Horton said. “I did everything. I sign-waved, I put up signs, I went to all the meetings and forums. I got out there with the people.”