A hiring freeze aimed at helping Ventura County erase a projected $46-million budget deficit could end up costing the county millions of dollars more in revenues.
This is the argument Assessor Glenn Gray will make to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday when he asks for money to hire 22 new appraisers and assistants to help him deal with a backlog of 10,000 property assessment appeals.
If the assessor fails to review the cases before a state-imposed deadline, the county risks a major loss in revenue that would affect everything from county schools to the Fire Department, Gray said.
"It's a big problem," he said. "But as an elected official, I have to tell the board and the public where we are and what the repercussions are if we can't get the job done so that it can't come back on me."
Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon has also requested that the board exempt his office from the hiring freeze. The freeze imposed by the board two weeks ago affects all departments, except public safety agencies and health and welfare services.
"While we do not arrest criminals, treat the injured or put out fires, our office provides many of the essential services which make such activities possible," Mahon wrote in a report to the board. "Much of the information needed by your board and required by the public is only available from our office."
Mahon said if his office does not fill eight vacant accounting and auditing positions it will be difficult for him to provide the board with critical financial and budget information it needs in a timely manner.
"If we don't get the bodies we need, we can't do the job," he said.
Supervisor Frank Schillo, who proposed the hiring freeze, said that both the assessor and auditor-controller provide critical services, but that it boils down to what the county can afford. The new jobs in the assessor's office, for example, would cost the county more than $700,000 annually.
"Every department could make a good case" for more workers, Schillo said. "Then there wouldn't be a hiring freeze, we would continue spending, and the taxpayers wouldn't be happy. We've got to stop spending."
But Supervisor John Flynn, who supported the hiring freeze, said the county should make an exception in the case of the assessor's office, which, he noted, has lost 53 positions--including 21 appraisers and four managers--in the last four years.
"I've been concerned about the assessor all along," said Flynn, who voted against department cuts last year. "I think the assessor needs help. I know the assessor needs help."
Indeed, the heavy workload and the fear of more personnel cuts have already taken a heavy toll on personnel, Gray said.
"Everybody in this complex is worried about whether they're going to lose their jobs," he said. "All they hear about is a 40-something-million-dollar budget deficit. So people are asking, 'When are we going to be cut?' And they're saying, 'If we get the opportunity to go someplace else, we're going.' "
Since October, Gray said, he has lost four longtime appraisers who either took other jobs or left the area altogether. Of the department's remaining 96 employees, only about half are appraisers.
Susan O'Connell, a senior appraiser in the assessor's office, said the result is the heaviest workload she has seen in her 10 years there. O'Connell said each appraiser has hundreds of appeals cases in addition to the regular workload.
"We're just overwhelmed with cases," she said. "You look at the faces around here, and everyone is tired and exhausted. Knowing you can't get all of your work done or keep up the quality of work is really demoralizing."
Gray said that even if he is allowed to hire more help it will still be difficult to meet some deadlines because of the time it takes to recruit and train new personnel.
He said state law requires that appeals cases be reviewed within two years. Otherwise, the county must accept an owner's own property assessment, with the difference being anywhere from a few thousand dollars to possibly millions of dollars.
Although the county received a record 8,500 appeals this year alone, it still has 1,490 pending from last year. Those cases must be heard by September, or the county faces a potential loss of $13 million, Gray said.
"This has never happened in Ventura County," he said. "But if we get behind in our work and don't defend these cases, then we're going to lose money."
Gray noted that Orange County's failure to hear nearly 200 property assessment appeals on time cost that county nearly $2 million this year.
Still, Gray said he does not believe that the board will approve the funds for all the 22 permanent positions he is asking for, especially since the proposal requires approval by four of the five supervisors.
"I don't think it will happen," he said. "But I've got to tell them what it will take to right the ship."
Gray said his office helps collect about $500 million a year in property taxes for the county, schools and other agencies. For this reason, he said, his office, which, along with the auditor and tax collector, has a combined annual budget of about $6 million, should be a top priority.
"I don't think we would even be in this position if there hadn't been cuts in our staff" over the last four years, Gray said. "We could have headed this off."
Meanwhile, Acting Chief Administrator Robert C. Hirtensteiner will ask the board Tuesday for a clarification on the hiring freeze as it pertains to the Fire Department and the Ventura County Medical Center as well as to promotions, transfers and contract help. Hirtensteiner also asked for clarification on how long the freeze will remain in effect.
Schillo acknowledged that the board has a number of details to work out regarding the freeze, details that could help some departments. For instance, he said, people already going through the hiring process when the freeze was implemented should not be penalized.
"There are some jagged edges there that have to be addressed," Schillo said. "We have to decide what is a reasonable application of the freeze."