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Johnson: Assessor needs to modernize systems to better serve taxpayers

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Johnson: Assessor needs to modernize systems to better serve taxpayers

The Pima County Assessor's Office, in cooperation with other county departments, needs to upgrade its computer systems and software so they can produce more accurate market valuations and become transparent in the process. Software companies serving the assessment industry have come up with a variety of products that integrate functions and workflows for the assessor, treasurer, recorder and other county administrative departments that result in the efficient administration of property taxes and associated property record keeping; many with robust query ability available to decision makers in the business, real estate and development communities.

Up until the Great Recession many governments developed their own systems as they had budgets for staff to accomplish the job. In Arizona the Department of Revenue played a huge role in providing assessment services to all 15 counties. Budget cuts at the state level in 2010 and afterwards left many of those services unfunded and staffing levels a fraction of what they were. The counties in Arizona now had find ways to accomplish the job of property assessment without relying on ADOR. All of them except Pima County sought out software vendors to provide CAMA (computer aided mass appraisal), cadastral mapping and construction cost systems; the Pima County assessor decided to wing it in-house.

The cost of maintaining the assessment systems from outside vendors might seem excessive, the Maricopa County Assessor's Office last year spent approximately $1.25 million for a jurisdiction four times as large as Pima County. Finding the resources here in Pima County would not be as hard as one might think. The current fiscal year budget for the assessor allocates money for discretionary litigation that is unnecessary and at times contrary to the overall goals of the county's Board of Supervisors for economic development as in the case that the assessor has brought against Raytheon. It would only take a shift of focus away from managing assessment disputes through litigation to providing better tools to minimize those disputes.

The outcomes from such a change of focus would have an impact beyond simply providing more accurate and fair property tax assessments. In a recent study, 50-State Property Tax Comparison Study for Taxes Paid in 2015, by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, Tucson ranks fifth of the 50 largest cities with the highest effective tax rate on large commercial properties. This is partly because of the valuation which uses a cost method that is unfounded in market realities. Most jurisdictions in the country as well as appraisers in the private sector use Marshall & Swift valuation services as the foundation for their cost value determinations. This produces vastly different valuations than the assessor's home-grown data. More reliable valuations might relieve that impression that the Tucson area has excessively high property taxes, a deterrent to many businesses that would consider relocating here.

Although the assessor does not make property tax laws or policy — that is the role of the state legislators — nor does the assessor determine the tax rates, the assessor does have an important role in determining how the process works and how transparent that process is. Open data systems are the way of the future especially as millennials become more engaged and more instrumental in the decision making processes for land use and development. Upgrading the assessor's systems now with an eye to the future is a necessary step in the right direction.

Brian Johnson is challenging incumbent Bill Staples in the Democratic primary for Pima County assessor.

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