Local Politics

Tuesday, Mar 19 2013 01:02 PM

Kern tax official cancels retirement

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    Assessor-Recorder Jim Fitch

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

An incensed Assessor-Recorder Jim Fitch, comparing Kern County's oil companies to a bank robber, yanked back the retirement announcement he made in February less than two weeks before he was set to leave the post.

"I'm pulling my retirement papers. I will serve out my term," he told Kern County supervisors Tuesday. "And, after talking with my family, there is a really good chance I will be running for Assessor-Recorder in 2014."

Fitch referenced a letter from the Kern County Taxpayers' Association that was critical of his office and urged supervisors to use his retirement, in the middle of his four-year term in the elected office, to closely examine who they wanted to appoint to replace him.

The Kern Tax letter questioned why the number of appeals against Kern County Assessor-Recorder's office was so high and why the Kern County Assessment Appeals Board rejected so many of them.

"Kern Tax is a lobbyist for the oil industry," Fitch said.

He rejected Kern Tax's arguments that his office wins too many appeals.

Fitch said it works with many taxpayers before cases are taken to the appeals board and, if the two sides agree that the evidence shows a different value is justified, Fitch said his office will stipulate to the accuracy of that value.

"We process a lot of that without dragging the taxpayer before the assessment appeals board," Fitch said.

But Fitch said the result of those stipulations is that assessor's office brings only the strongest cases to the Appeals Board, and thus wins more often than other counties do.

"The problem (for oil companies) is that we are winning at the Assessment Appeals Board," Fitch said.

He then told supervisors the story of a bank robber, who when asked why he robbed banks, replied "that's where the money is."

Contacted Tuesday afternoon, Fitch said the analogy is tied to the way the oil industry sees the work his office does.

"We're an expense for many of these people," he said. "We have big-dollar properties, and there are big dollars at stake."

If the oil companies can reduce their taxes, then its worth it, he said.

He said oil companies don't like losing when they challenge his department's assessments.

"If you're losing the game, maybe you want to change the other team's players. If the officials are making calls against you, maybe you want to change the officials -- and thats the Assessment Appeals Board," Fitch said.

Kern Tax Executive Director Mike Turnipseed popped up after Fitch sat down and countered his statements.

"I wish I was paid like an oil lobbyist. That's not the case," he said.

Kern Tax has not raised any issues about the oil industry and was simply asking supervisors to watch the appointment process closely, Turnipseed said.

After the meeting Turnipseed said the nature of the Assessor-Recorder's office, as an elected position, protects Fitch and his staff from close oversight by supervisors who are prevented from reviewing the office's internal workings.

Fitch's retirement -- in the middle of his term -- gave supervisors a unique chance to ask about the department functions in order to make an appropriate appointment to the position, Turnipseed said.

Now that opportunity is gone.

"I do not have a problem with the Board of Supervisors looking in," Fitch said. The problem is, "this got to be political," he added.

Fitch asked why Turnipseed didn't make similar inquiries about former Auditor-Controller Ann Barnett's job. Barnett retired recently, also in mid-term, but supervisors did not investigate her leadership and team before they appointed her hand-picked successor to replace her.

Turnipseed said the functions of the two offices are different. The assessor sets property values and tax bills. The auditor-controller pays county bills and audits the functions of departments.

Fitch's department is different because it's on the front end of that tax-flow equation, Turnipseed said.

But Fitch said it was the political gaming behind the scenes that forced Ansolabehere to pull his name from consideration.

Ansolabehere confirmed that.

"It just wasn't what we expected. We saw what happened with Ann Barnett, and we thought it would be a smooth process, that it would be good for the office," Ansolabehere said. "Then it went south."

With his second-in-command out, Fitch decided it would be better to end the appointment process.

It has been a rough month for Fitch, who also had to weather a storm of concern and questions about a massive de-valuing of Occidental Petroleum's Elk Hills oil and gas field.

The property's tax value was decreased by $2.5 billion, and that stripped $27 million a year out of the budgets of the county and a host of other governments and special districts.

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