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County assessor candidates polar opposites

Van Nortwick vows big changes; Seekins touts her experience

By Stephanie Rice
Published: October 18, 2010, 12:00am
2 Photos
Peter Van Nortwick
Peter Van Nortwick Photo Gallery

PETER VAN NORTWICK

Republican

o Age: 43.

o Profession: Self-employed real estate appraiser.

o Campaign finances: $17,641 raised, $17,348 spent.

o Quote: “Are you for change in this office or do you want the status quo?”

o Website: www.van4assessor.com.

JANET SEEKINS

Democrat

o Age: 53.

o Profession: Senior residential appraiser in the assessor’s office.

o Campaign finances: $17,376 raised, $15,124 spent.

o Quote: “I truly care about the direction of our office and making sure all the taxpayers are treated with respect and fairness.”

o Website: www.janetseekinsforassessor.org.

Democrat Janet Seekins and Republican Peter Van Nortwick are vying to replace Clark County Assessor Linda Franklin.

From the start, with Van Nortwick charging that the county assesses property values incorrectly and Franklin responding, “Hell, no” when asked if Van Nortwick was qualified, the race has been bitter and different angles have emerged.

PETER VAN NORTWICK

Republican

o Age: 43.

o Profession: Self-employed real estate appraiser.

o Campaign finances: $17,641 raised, $17,348 spent.

o Quote: "Are you for change in this office or do you want the status quo?"

o Website: www.van4assessor.com.

JANET SEEKINS

Democrat

o Age: 53.

o Profession: Senior residential appraiser in the assessor's office.

o Campaign finances: $17,376 raised, $15,124 spent.

o Quote: "I truly care about the direction of our office and making sure all the taxpayers are treated with respect and fairness."

o Website: www.janetseekinsforassessor.org.

There’s insider versus outsider: Seekins has worked for the office for 29 years, while Van Nortwick’s self-employed.

There’s a difference in goals: Seekins cites greater efficiency, improved customer service and an enhanced website as priorities; Van Nortwick has written a “Bill of Rights” for property taxpayers, making pledges that, to be realized, would require changes in state law and, in one case, an amendment to the state constitution.

There’s the what’s-more-disconcerting angle: Seekins didn’t register to vote until April, so the first time she voted was the August primary.

If that’s her skeleton in the closet, Van Nortwick’s skeleton, as disclosed in court documents seven years ago, is that he couldn’t pay child support because he has a significant mental disability that makes it difficult for him to build relationships with people and find employment.

Van Nortwick was trained to be an appraiser through the Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. He qualified for the assistance after he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Van Nortwick said he’s learned to manage his condition.

Proud outsider

The differences between candidates makes for an interesting Nov. 2 election for an office voters haven’t had to pay much attention to for three decades.

Former Clark County Assessor Ben Gassaway served for 24 years. Franklin, Gassaway’s chief deputy assessor, was elected in 2002 and again in 2006.

Van Nortwick promotes himself as an outsider who would bring a fresh perspective.

The assessor supervises a total of 67 employees in the assessor’s office and the Geographic Information Systems department and a total two-year budget of approximately $12 million.

The job currently pays $92,364 a year, the same salary as the auditor, treasurer and clerk.

Van Nortwick said that if he wins, he will fire the chief deputy assessor and bring in Linda Latto, a former employee of the assessor’s office who works for Kaiser Permanente.

Seekins said she has not promised anyone a job.

“I’m not looking to bring back ex-employees to run the office, that much I can say,” Seekins said.

Van Nortwick has slammed the office’s inability to assess properties at 100 percent of market value. According to the Department of Revenue, Clark County assesses properties at 92 percent of market value, above the state average of 87 percent.

Seekins doubts Van Nortwick could do better. She said he doesn’t understand mass appraisal techniques and that appraising 165,000 parcels is very different from thoroughly inspecting each property.

Only approximately 1 percent of property owners appeal their assessed values, Seekins said.

Another of Van Nortwick’s criticisms is of a mistake made last year, when a bad estimate by an assessor led to a troubling budget situation at Clark County Fire and Rescue. Falling property assessments forced the fire agency, which covers most Ridgefield, La Center and Battle Ground addresses, to lay off employees.

After the county 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.

Seekins said the employee never should have offered the premature estimate to the district, and said she will enforce a strict no-estimate policy.

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Perhaps the biggest difference between the candidates is what they are promising voters. Van Nortwick promises to be an advocate for major changes that Seekins said are unrealistic, unnecessary or simply don’t make sense.

The Columbian asked Department of Revenue spokesman Mike Gowrylow to review Van Nortwick’s “Bill of Rights” and explain what would have to happen for them to become reality.

Gowrylow, after consulting with employees, responded by e-mail.

• Van Nortwick wants to shift the burden of proof in appeals from the landowner to the county. Currently, when a property owner appeals to the Board of Equalization, the owner must prove why the county is wrong. Gowrylow said lawmakers would have to change state law.

• Van Nortwick wants government-owned land to be subject to property taxes.

Gowrylow said that would take a constitutional amendment.

• Van Nortwick wants property owners to be notified of how zoning changes will affect their values.

Gowrylow said the Planning Enabling Act provides property owners with the right to be notified of potential zoning changes. “Practically speaking, it may be difficult for assessors to determine the impact in terms of valuation change that could occur, since the zoning change may happen well before the assessment date,” he wrote. “Additionally, there is not a direct relationship between a change in assessed value and the change in property tax. So, overall property tax implications would be difficult to determine with any certainty.”

• Van Nortwick, who has received donations from no-tolls advocate David Madore, wants government projects, specifically the Columbia River Crossing, to include a requirement that property owners know how the project will affect their values.

Gowrylow said that would require a new state law and be complicated by the time government projects take from conception to completion. “It’s unlikely assessors could estimate what the market will be at some point in the future,” Gowrylow wrote. “The lack of market data relevant to a future assessment date would make this requirement difficult to achieve.”

• Van Nortwick said farmers should be able to retire on their land without paying back taxes.

“Current law already offers a program that promotes the conservation of farmland — it’s called farm and agricultural conservation land,” Gowrylow wrote.

Seekins, who gave her own responses to Van Nortwick’s Bill of Rights, said landowners sign up for the deferral program knowing the tax implications.

Once the land is no longer being farmed, you’re not saving a farm, she said.

“It’s a really big residential property. And the family will receive the benefits of the market sale price,” she said.

Support for both

For all their differences, Seekins and Van Nortwick have each drawn a fair share of supporters. Seekins counts Gassaway, Franklin and a former Republican opponent, Daniel Weaver, the Clark County Association of Realtors and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 452 and Local 1805 among her supporters.

Van Nortwick has been endorsed by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Battle Ground Mayor Mike Ciraulo, Washougal City Councilman Jon Russell, the Building Industry Association of Clark County and Dennis Mason, chief of Clark County Fire and Rescue, among others.

For a complete list of endorsements, see the candidates’ websites.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.

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