Quirks of the County Blog

Saturday, Feb 09 2013 03:00 AM

Veteran county assessor Fitch to retire

BY LOIS HENRY Californian staff writer lhenry@bakersfield.com

It took him a while, but after 39 years working in government, Kern County Assessor-Recorder James Fitch finally figured out that every day would bring new challenges and that there would always be another project to finish.

There would never be a perfect time to retire.

So, he went ahead and pulled the plug, notifying the board of supervisors and his staff earlier this week that his last day would be March 30.

He has served as assessor-recorder, an elected position, for the past 10 years.

Supervisors must now appoint a successor and Fitch has already nominated his second-in-command, Assistant Assessor Tony Ansolabehere who has served in that capacity for the past 10 years. Ansolabehere has a degree in computer science from University of Southern California, a background in property appraisal and has worked on complicated energy properties as well, Fitch said.

Calls to two supervisors and County Administrative officer John Nilon seeking comment were not immediately returned.

"I love the job and all the challenges," said Fitch, 69 years old. "I'm not leaving because I'm tired, or expired. I just feel I need to move on and let the people below me move up. It will be good for the organization."

In his time as assessor, Fitch has watched the county ride a "roller coaster" of booms and busts in the housing market and the oil and gas industry.

"I've seen so many cycles," he said. And now housing is back on the upswing.

During the bust cycles, he said, he was very proud of how proactive his office has been in lowering property valuations saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. In this most recent bust, his staff worked to lower taxes on more than 100,000 properties.

"It was only right and fair," he said. "We're not driven by budget needs in this office, but by the law and market values."

Same thing with oil and gas. He remembers when he took office the average price per barrel of oil was $10. It has since reached heights of $110 a barrel. With those swings, his assessors have marked oil property values up and down.

Through the years, not everyone has agreed with the assessor's valuations, particularly oil companies. And while the office has lowered valuations, it has also stood its ground, in some cases all the way to appellate courts.

"Looking back, I can't think of a single significant decision we've made that I would do over," Fitch said.

He did wonder whether some people would think he's leaving now because of the latest news of the dramatic devaluation of Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s Elk Hills property.

But that's not an error on the part of the assessor's office, he stressed. Oxy had a decline in reserves that triggered the drop in valuation from $9.2 billion in 2011 to about $6.7 billion in 2012.

Fitch predicted the next big tax arena for kern will be in wind energy properties.

"They will start adding significantly to our tax base," he said.

For his immediate future, Fitch said he plans to climb a few mountains.

June will see him atop Half Dome in Yosemite, in July he'll scale Mt. Whitney and in August he'll join his son in Japan and together they hope to summit Mt. Fuji.

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