Duties of the Assessor
What the Assessor Does & Why You Should Care
Because property taxes are calculated on the value of the property being taxed, "ad valorem" in Latin, the Assessor must locate, describe and determine the value of the various kinds of property subject to taxation. In California's 58 counties the location and valuation function for property tax purposes rests with the elected County Assessor and the staff of the Assessor's office. The Assessor has always been independently elected in California by the voters of the County so that the position is not subject to pressure from the governing body of the county, cities or school and special districts to increase assessments in order to generate more revenue. The Assessor works for all the voters and property owners in the county and is charged with preparing fair and correct valuations based on objective market standards.
How the Assessor Finds Property
Locating real property, land, structures and growing improvements is relatively straightforward from deeds, building permits and other property descriptions. The Assessor is charged with maintaining assessment maps, which show each parcel of land, and an assessment roll, which describes the improvements on the property and the ownership of that property.
An Interesting Aside
An 1888 Assessment Ledger for Napa County still lists all the household effects, including sewing machines, furniture and wagons, as well as cattle and horses, because all were taxable. This information was collected by Assessor office staff who visited the properties. In modern times household furnishings, most livestock, and business inventory have all been removed from the definition of taxable property.
Proposition 13 Changed the Rules
Prior to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the Assessor reappraised all properties on a four-year cycle, with entire neighborhoods receiving increases in value based on recent sales in that area. Under Proposition 13, values are established at a base year, either as of March 1, 1975, or as of a change of ownership or new construction. Proposition 13 requires an annual inflationary adjustment, not to exceed 2%. A property with a 1975 base-year value of $100,000 has a cumulative adjustment over 30 years of 179%, resulting in a 2005 factored base year value of $179,000.
Thus the function of the assessor has gone from doing mass appraisal impacting many properties to an individual appraisal of properties that have changed hands or had new construction. Ownership records are maintained from documents obtained from the County Recorder. Assessor maps are updated as parcels are subdivided or their boundaries adjusted. Building permits are reviewed for assessable new construction and appraisers make discoveries in the field.
How Property is Reappraised
When a property is reappraised for change of ownership, the appraiser looks at comparable sales of like properties, or if the property produces income, s/he will do an income approach. Where the property is unique, the appraiser may use the owner's cost of construction (historic cost) or use costs based on industry-wide studies (replacement costs). Once a property has been valued, the owner is notified of the new value and given the opportunity to discuss the value with the Assessor. If there is disagreement, the owner may apply for a changed assessment with the local board of equalization.
Personal property such as aircraft and boats are assessed each year based on "blue book" data gathered from market sales. Equipment used in a trade or business is also assessed every year, using a formula based on original cost and age of the equipment.