Paper Trails

Assessing the Chronicle
The San Francisco Chronicle first flashed the high beams of its scrutiny on the Assessor's Office, and in particular on Assessor Doris Ward, in a two-part series at the end of May. But left in the shadows was the Chronicle's own interest in the assessor's authority.

The gist of the Chronicle coverage, which continues today, is that Ward was inattentive to office management and modernization, and absent from the job. As a result, the Chronicle argues in its news stories and an editorial, the city was losing $25 million a year in property taxes. Much of the loss was attributed to the assessor's lay-down-and-die posture before the demands of major commercial property owners for lowered property value assessments.

In the May 31 story headlined "How Owners of SF Buildings Cash In for Big Tax Refunds," by Chronicle reporter John King, a chart itemized the lowered assessments and tax obligations for nine buildings on two blocks near the waterfront in the South of Market district.

Luckily for the Chronicle, none of its real estate was on those blocks. Had the Chron cast its investigative net five blocks farther, readers would have learned that the owners of their morning paper were seeking to cash in for "big tax refunds."

Assessor's Office records reveal that at the time the Chronicle series was under way -- in early February -- the paper was requesting a $69,960,544 reduction in its real property valuation -- which would have cashed in for a "big tax refund" of $804,843.77. In addition, the Chronicle Publishing Co. faced increased valuations of about $9 million for new equipment it had bought.

That real estate tax rollback the Chronicle sought was greater than eight of the nine buildings listed in the paper's story.

"In retrospect, it should have been mentioned that the Chronicle went in seeking sizable valuations as well," says John King, author of the May 31 story. "It would have been good to put in a paragraph mentioning that just to make it clear."

The Chronicle, by the way, withdrew three appeals on April 13, two months after its reporter and a photographer followed Assessor Ward to track her movements. Three more appeals were dropped on June 16, two weeks after the Chronicle's first stories ran. Two other appeals, amounting to a potential tax savings of $26,616.24, are still pending.

The series' first story, by reporter David Dietz, trumpets that "Assessor's Office Falters -- SF Losing Millions."

Citing "obsolete assessment methods and office neglect," the article fingers Ward as the culprit. Dietz wrote that a mayoral committee found that as much as $25 million was being lost because of primitive office systems and essentially no computers. But blame for the office's Stone Age infrastructure lies squarely on former Assessor Richard Hongisto, who canceled the city's order for a computerized system that would have hooked the Assessor's Office to other city departments, in preference for a system offered by a friend of his and which has never worked. The Mayor's Fiscal Advisory Committee report on the problem was actually issued in May 1992, just weeks after Hongisto had left the assessor's post. Yet the Dietz story touts Hongisto as the only assessor with administrative skills, and never mentions that it was he -- and not Ward -- who set back the city's revenue collections.

The grabber in Dietz's story, however, is his discovery that Ward shops between 9 and 5, escorted in a city car, while her office fails the taxpayers.

But when should Ward go shopping? On her off hours! There's just one problem: As an elected official, Ward received no vacation days or annual leave. How big a Chronicle story would it be if the paper tracked supervisors on their vacations to Tassajara, or the mayor to Hawaii?

When contacted for comment, Dietz asked if I were ghostwriting an op-ed piece for Doris Ward, or advising her about her response to his articles.

Dietz stands by his story, saying, "The bottom line is it doesn't excuse the fact that the office doesn't work."

Dietz acknowledges Hongisto's role in undoing an Assessor's Office computer system. "The point is that what has she done to fix the problem."

He also acknowledges that in the last three budgets, Ward has asked for more staff to process assessments, a request that has been turned down by Frank Jordan.

"Maybe that reflects a lack of confidence in her by Jordan that he doesn't want to say publicly," he says. "Why should she get more staff when the staff she has isn't doing the work?"

Spoiling for Victory
Two months ago, late-entry mayoral candidate Roberta Achtenberg faced charges that she was a spoiler in a plan to unseat incumbent Mayor Frank Jordan.

That was then, this is now. And now Achtenberg is the candidate to make gains in the last 60 days, according to a David Binder poll of 600 likely voters completed on June 19. (Binder added the mayoral question to a separate poll on November ballot issues commissioned by consultant John Whitehurst. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)

Jordan, Willie Brown, and Angela Alioto all dropped in the poll. The shift was enough to knock over Brown's claim that he's the only one who could beat Jordan in a runoff; Achtenberg also leads Jordan in a runoff (42 percent to 40 percent).

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