New L.A. County assessor wants to move past scandal, update computers

Transition team report outlines plans and potential pitfalls for LA County assessor's office

Newly elected Los Angeles County Assessor Jeff Prang wants to launch an $80-million overhaul of his agency’s computer system and slash a backlog of 23,000 assessment appeals without regressing to an informal system used under his predecessor, John Noguez.

Noguez, who did not seek re-election, is fighting criminal charges that he reduced property values in exchange for bribes.

Prang’s plans were outline in a transition team report released Tuesday. The team selected by the assessor, co-chaired by Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, former Assembly Speaker John Pérez and civil rights attorney Connie Rice, issued a largely glowing assessment of the office's progress since Prang’s election in November.

“We commend the assessor on the initiatives he has instituted and urge county support for needed funding, particularly in upgrading outdated computer systems and technology,” they wrote.

Prang said on the campaign trail last year that he would focus on replacing the office's computer systems, which were built in the 1970s and '80s. The new system will allow the office to move away from a paper-based record-keeping system and allow staff to be more efficient, he said.

"What it means is that if you call any of our offices or downtown, anyone who answers the phone will be able to answer your questions and access any data that's necessary to answer your questions," he said. "No more referrals to district offices, no more calls back while someone searches through caverns of files to try to find that document."

He said the office is close to picking a software vendor to develop the new system and -- if approved by the county Board of Supervisors -- the project will probably take four or five years.

The transition team warned that the office should be aware of the pitfalls of “prior large IT endeavors in government that have sometimes failed because of their magnitude" -- like the faulty Los Angeles Department of Water and Power billing system, Galperin said.

The transition team also took note of a substantial backlog in cases waiting for a hearing before the assessment appeals board, which decides disputes over property valuations.

The team noted that assessor staff could work to resolve more cases earlier so they do not go before the board "unless absolutely necessary."

But Prang acknowledged that, in part, the increased backlog is the result of new policies implemented to ensure more oversight of how cases are resolved in the wake of the Noguez scandal.

Under the old system, assessor staff and property owners or tax agents would often work out deals informally, negotiating a value that everyone could agree upon. That system, Prang said, "largely worked."

"The challenge with it was it wasn't transparent, there were no hard and fast guidelines to help ensure uniformity, and it was viewed by many to be inequitable and ripe for abuse," he said.

The office is now looking at other strategies to help reduce the backlog, including finding ways to reduce no-shows and excessive continuances that can drag hearings out for months or years. The assessor's office also needs to make sure that its employees are adequately prepared when they show up for hearings, he said.

The transition team also suggested increasing the number of assessor representatives and adding an additional hearing room or hearing times.

The report largely commended reforms made in the office to date but also suggested creating an "interactive and ongoing" ethics training system for employees.

Also over the next two years, Prang said he hoped to set up a one-stop service center where taxpayers can talk to representatives of all three county agencies dealing with property taxes -- the assessor's office, the treasurer-tax collector and the auditor-controller.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county government news.


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