Assessing the Assessor

Pima County Assessor’s Office former employee Brian Johnson hopes to unseat incumbent Bill Staples in a campaign loaded with criticism

Pima County Assessor Bill Staples is so confident about his work in office for the past 12 years that he says he isn't asking for monetary contributions or currently seeking endorsements for his re-election campaign as he faces a challenger in the August Democratic primary.

Seats like the county assessor's—whose role is to assign values to properties as the basis for the property taxes levied by the county, school districts and other local entities so that property taxes are distributed fairly—are tough to win for rookie challengers with low name ID.

Nonetheless, Staples is facing a challenge from a former employee in the assessor's office. Brian Johnson has heard his share of doubts regarding his candidacy; the 61-year-old Johnson has never sought public office. Staples is seeking his fourth term as assessor and has enjoyed the support of local Democrats, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva.

Johnson, who after eight years working with Staples is now the program manager for property assessment litigation under the county's Department of Finance and Risk Management, is aware of the challenge but is still running his grassroots campaign with plenty of criticism for the way things have been functioning under Staples.

Johnson says the assessor's office has spent hundreds of thousands of budget dollars in "unnecessary" litigations, such as a dispute with Tucson's largest private employer Raytheon; denies property-tax exemptions to nonprofit organizations like the Primavera Foundation (which led to Primavera suing the county); and that taxes for large commercial properties are too high. Johnson also says Staples is an uncooperative person running an office with transparency problems.

"Bill doesn't like things to get out," Johnson says. "He sort of considers it his own little dominion and he doesn't work cooperatively with the other parts of the county and this is a substantial problem."

Johnson says Staples no longer provides accurate and up-to-date information to the public and that the assessor's information should be upgraded and modernized.

"This is a result of either not allocating stuffiest resources and personnel, or just a lack of desire to provide taxpayers, the real estate community, developers and government officials with reliable and accessible information," Johnson says in a letter he submitted to the Pima County Board of Supervisors at the end of April.

Staples says Johnson is off-base in his criticisms.

"I will try to put it kindly and call those [allegations] misinformed," Staples told the Weekly.

Johnson wants to improve what he calls a flawed relationship between the assessor's office, nonprofit organizations and businesses. The first step, according to Johnson, is to completely change the assessor's property tax-exemption policies. The county assessor has the authority to grant or deny exemptions, based on whether the property owners use their land for public service or for commercial use.

Johnson says Staples doesn't exercise that discretion in "a reasonable manner, which is constantly forcing nonprofit organizations into court to plead their case for property tax exemption." He cites court cases involving the Primavera Foundation and the Christ Lutheran Vail Church, which he considers "unnecessary" and a waste of taxpayer money.

In the case of the Primavera Foundation, the nonprofit was awarded a contract with the county for the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program. With the federal grant, Primavera purchased decrepit homes in South Tucson and either rehabilitated them or demolished them and redeveloped them. These properties became affordable housing for low-income residents to either purchase or rent.

While Arizona law allows the assessor's office to grant an exemption based on indigence, Johnson says that Staples decided to that the homes did not qualify because he based the criteria on whether the tenants were at 125 percent of the federal poverty level rather than whether their income was below 50 percent of the Area Median Income, an alternative way of measuring indigence.

"Arizona law does not require the county assessors to use a particular measure or threshold to determine or define 'indigent' and the Arizona Department of Revenue does not provide any guidance either," Johnson said in a letter to the Weekly. "This is purely up to the discretion of the county assessor so this is one case Bill Staples will likely win from a legal perspective. That, however, does not make his exercise of discretion morally, socially or economically in line with the values of the community."

Staples says his office bends over backwards to make sure a property owner's "valuation, their classification or use of the property is viewed favorably towards the property owner."

"I am taken back by Primavera," says Staples, who adds that the nonprofit "sued the county, not this office. The county administrator's office requested that we defend the lawsuit for Pima County."

Staples points to accomplishments throughout his three terms in office. For instance, he says the valuation notices mailed to property owners since around 2006 include details about property characteristics that impact the valuation.

"The amount of information that is contained far exceeds the postcard that was originally mailed by this office," Staples says. "It is clearly beneficial to all property owners in Pima County."

He also says the assessor's office did a good job of managing values in the wild market that led up to and followed the real-estate crash during the Great Recession, even as many properties were falling into foreclosure and often ending up in the hands of different lenders.

"Most people saw their value go up significantly and down significantly and we tracked those values I think very accurately," he says.

Johnson acknowledges that he doesn't have much money or experience campaign workers to help him knock out a three-term incumbent, but says he's trying to get out his message through talking with voters.

"I got over 1000 signatures but that is a lot of hard work," Johnson says. "I don't have any money to go and tell somebody to do it. That was challenging, but what was great about it is that I did it myself. I was out there talking to people. I'm feeling good about it now."

The primary is on Tuesday, Aug. 30. The winner will face independent candidate Suzanne Droubie in November.

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