Challenger slams county assessor’s performance

Official says appraiser’s experience has only limited relevance to the job

By Michael Andersen, Columbian staff writer

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Election year may have just begun, but the race for Clark County assessor is already off to a screeching start.

Peter Van Nortwick, a Salmon Creek property appraiser, last week accused incumbent Assessor Linda Franklin of bungling a software update, leading to thousands of late property assessments and confusion over north-county fire budgets.

“My background is in business,” said Van Nortwick, who has announced his candidacy as a Republican. “When you switch systems, you run two systems next to each other, so you can make the switch over.”

Franklin, a Democrat first elected in 2002, shot back at Van Nortwick that the county budget can’t support the staff to maintain duplicate systems.

“It’s very expensive to have all the work being done twice,” she said. “If he were a business person with an actual staff, he would understand that.”

Van Nortwick shares his Salmon Creek firm, American Commercial and Residential Appraisal, with one partner. At a previous job, he said, he managed 20 people.

Late assessments

Franklin said many property assessments were mailed late last year because of problems with new software.

The county’s computer department and the assessor’s office were both hit by budget cuts early in 2009.

Most years, assessments are ready by summer. Last year, two big batches weren’t mailed until November.

“It’s not unusual to be late with assessments,” Franklin said. “It happens when you’re dealing with software. … Staff is doing the very best they can.”

Van Nortwick doesn’t accept her answer.

“That sounds like, ‘The dog ate my homework,’” he said.

Software delays contributed to a mistaken estimate by Franklin’s office of the budget situation at Clark County Fire and Rescue.

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Clark County Fire and Rescue budget

Falling property assessments forced the fire agency, which covers most Ridgefield, La Center and Battle Ground addresses, to lay off 23 employees and pull professional firefighters from its downtown Ridgefield station.

After Franklin’s office laid off the employee assigned to deal with fire districts, her replacement inaccurately calculated that Clark County Fire and Rescue wouldn’t have to make any cuts, leading to a week of confusion.

Franklin called it an honest mistake by one of her staff.

“I feel really badly for the people who were personally affected by it,” she said Thursday. “(But) they would get no more money whether we made the mistake or whether we didn’t.”

Valuations criticized

Van Nortwick also accused Franklin’s office of underestimating property values in La Center and Battle Ground.

He presented data comparing 2009 property assessments to sales in mid- to late 2008 and concluded that Franklin’s average estimates were 11 percent to 13 percent too low.

“When you’re within 5 percent, it’s legitimate,” Van Nortwick said. “When you’re outside of that … it really becomes questionable.”

Earlier, Van Nortwick had compared Franklin’s 2008 assessments to 2007 sales and accused Franklin’s office of overestimating home values.

In his analysis, Van Nortwick didn’t attempt to account for the continuing drop in house prices during late 2008. Franklin said her office’s appraisals do reflect those shifts.

“It’s quite different to do a fee appraisal, one appraisal at a time, than it is to do mass appraisal and manage a department,” she said.

In an annual review of assessors’ offices around Washington by the state’s Office of Program Research, Franklin’s office ranked among the 10 most accurate on all measures in 2008. Washington has 39 counties.

Van Nortwick said he doesn’t care whether Franklin’s office is better than those in other counties.

He can make it better still, he said.

“How could it be, when you’re properly mass appraising, that you have these huge variations?” he asked. “It’s not adding up in my mind.”

Michael Andersen: 360-735-4508 or michael.andersen@columbian.com.