Local Politics

Monday, Mar 31 2014 05:23 PM

Candidates pitch qualifications for assessor's job

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    Kern County assessor candidate Russell Johnson, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox."

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    Kern County assessor candidate Lupe Esquivias, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox" on March 31, 2014.

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    Kern County assessor candidate Jon Lifquist, left, discusses his qualifications for the position with Californian Executive Editor Robert Price, center, and government reporter James Burger on "First Look with Scott Cox" on March 31, 2014.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Three candidates are asking voters to give them control of the Kern County Assessor-Recorder's office -- the Kern County agency that sets the value of private property for tax purposes.

Russell Johnson is a Bakersfield City Council member with no direct experience as an appraiser -- but he believes the office needs a serious makeover.

Lupe Esquivias has seven years as an appraiser for the office and believes his new ideas will help bring the office into the modern era.

Jon Lifquist has 25 years of experience and believes he is the only candidate who knows the job well enough to balance the needs of taxpayers and property owners.

All three men joined Scott Cox and Californian Executive Editor Robert Price on the First Look with Scott Cox show on Monday morning to talk about why they deserve voters' support in June.

RUSSELL JOHNSON

Johnson pitched his outsider status on the show.

He criticized retiring Assessor Jim Fitch for trying to leave the office, one year ago, and promote his "hand-picked successor" Tony Ansolabehere to replace him.

And he said the Assessor's department needs an overhaul.

"There's been a lack of customer service, a lack of consistency and quite frankly a breakdown in leadership," Johnson said.

How he would be able to lead a department full of people with more experience in the complicated task of placing value on residential, commercial, oil and agricultural properties?

"The world's best appraiser can get the wrong valuation if they get the rules wrong," Johnson said.

Price pointed out that, as assessor, the county of Kern would be his client and he would play a big role in how much tax revenue Kern County governments could collect.

"It's more than just being on the side of the county. It's being on the side of the taxpayer," Johnson said. "But, you know what, county government has to function so you've got to make sure it's right, fair and accurate."

LUPE ESQUIVIAS

Esquivias said he is jumping at the chance to become assessor.

"It's the perfect opportunity to do so. I have a lot of great ideas," he said. "Right now, with Mr. Fitch not running, I think it'd be the perfect time."

The previous three assessors each served for a decade or two, he said.

"I figured If I didn't strike now, then it would be quite some time before that opportunity would present itself," Esquivias said.

He downplayed Johnson's adequacy for the job, despite his political track record.

"I have no political experience. This is not a political position. You actually have to have some hands-on, day-to-day experience in what we do," Esquivias said.

He said Lifquist has been in the office "for 20-something years" but in his time with the office he came up with systems to track his own workload that were adopted by his peers and then mandated by his bosses.

Esquivias said the Assessor's office has been slow to take its records digital.

"Some of the upper management have just been reluctant to incorporate new ideas and try different methods," he said.

JON LIFQUIST

Chief Appraiser Lifquist has worked for the Kern County Assessor's office for 25 years.

He said he's running because his experience makes him the best person to do the job.

"I couldn't see who else in the office is more qualified than myself," he said.

But he's not a politician and said Johnson's name and experience in politics makes him a serious challenger.

"Yes, he would be a formidable opponent. I don't think he's qualified for the job. He said himself that there's a learning curve. If you talk to any one of the 58 assessors in the state of California, they'll tell you there is a learning curve -- it's probably about 15 to 20 years," Lifquist said. "I don't know how to make up the deficit. I feel like I'm the underdog in a race I'm qualified for."

A politician doesn't belong in the Assessor's seat, he argued.

"A politician is somebody that makes deals. This is the antithesis of that. This is a position where you have to be accurate and fair with every single person," Lifquist said. "It is a technical position."

Are there things to change about the department? Yes.

Lifquist said that, under the structure of the office, new appraisers start in the residential division but to advance in their careers they have to transition to other divisions.

He said he'd like to change that so that experienced residential appraisers could stay in that division and give great service to residential property owners.

And the department needs to moved toward digital record-keeping, but at a measured and well-planned pace., he said.

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