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Wednesday, Mar 20 2013 11:00 PM

Don't let big oil manipulate tax appeal process

By The Bakersfield Californian

If Jim Fitch is willing to set aside his fishing pole for another two years, we're happy to let him -- especially if he's courageous enough to call a carp a carp when it comes to dealing with oil companies.

Fitch, Kern County's assessor-recorder, abruptly unretired Tuesday from the post he expected to leave later this month. He smelled a power grab by locally situated oil companies that believe their property is routinely overvalued by the Assessor's Office, resulting in unfairly high tax bills. And they can't seem to get any satisfaction from the Assessment Appeals Board, which sides most often with the county's original assessment. That's the oil companies' side of the story, anyway.

The events that led to Fitch's decision to withdraw his retirement papers -- and perhaps even run for re-election in 2014 -- played out in entertaining fashion at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. Fitch, angered over a letter from the Kern County Taxpayers' Association questioning why the number of appeals against his office were so high and why the appeals board rejected so many appeals, stood up and let KernTax have it.

KernTax, he said, is nothing less than a lobby group for the oil industry, and efforts to turn things inside out once Fitch retires are simply oil companies' attempt to get the property assessments -- and resulting lower tax bills -- they want. Fitch saw the situation for what it was: an attempt to skew the appeals process in favor of big oil. He was having none of it.

KernTax's Michael Turnipseed rejected Fitch's contention that he simply lobbies for big oil, but the evidence suggests otherwise. All six members of the KernTax executive board (including the two alternates) work in the oil and energy field, an industry whose contested assessments dominate the appeals board's calendar. In fact, most of KernTax's directors are affiliated with either big oil or big ag; they're not just a bunch of ordinary folks inspired to minimize our tax burdens purely on principle.

The argument that Fitch is trying to prevent supervisors from prying into the operations of his office is without credibility or validity. Both the Government Code and the Revenue and Taxation Code grant supervisors the ability to supervise all county officers and require assessors to permit access to and disclose information when conducting investigations. If county supervisors want to take a close look at the Assessor's Office, it is clearly their prerogative to do so.

While the Assessment Appeals Board can hear any type of case, including simple homeowner property valuations, clearly the big oil cases carry the most interest, given that the rulings can result in a seismic fiscal shift that can affect the funding of various vital public agencies and services. Case in point: A recent change in the valuation of Occidental Petroleum's massive Elk Hills oil and gas field in western Kern County that resulted in the loss of $11 million in tax revenue -- funds that were slated to help boost everything from schools to social services to county agencies.

The five-member appeals board is appointed by supervisors and consists of independent certified public accountants or public accountants, licensed real estate brokers, attorneys and accredited property appraisers. That sounds like a pretty qualified bunch. If oil companies had truly been assessed unfairly all this time, they'd have a better win-loss record in appeals cases.

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