Downtown's Fairy Godmother

Doris Ward, San Francisco's assessor, is tossing around commercial tax breaks as if they were fairy dust. It's costing the city at least $100 million a year.

"A lost or misplaced file, which would be treated with alarm at most assessor's offices, is not unusual in San Francisco," the board wrote.

The board observed that huge value reductions on downtown office buildings were not supported by paper trails. The board said that the reasons for changes in assessed values were not being appropriately documented and filed. The report worried that personnel in the Assessor's Office may, therefore, be able to reduce property values "in situations where this is not permitted by law."

The state board went on to complain that the assessor was not reassessing the value of some multimillion-dollar commercial properties when they changed hands, as is required by law. And among other things, the board reported, the assessor did not even look at 500 construction permits issued by the Port of San Francisco since 1990 -- permits that authorized the building of tens of millions of dollars in improvements that should have been placed on the city's tax rolls.

Three years later, few of the auditors' recommendations for improvements in the Assessor's Office appear to have been followed. Undervalued commercial property has not been increased in value. The basic filing system remains a disaster. The state auditors' urgent recommendation that Ward buy a new computer system has been hopelessly bungled (see related story, Page 15).

A 1997 audit of the assessor by KPMG Peat Marwick supports the notion that Doris Ward has made no real headway in fixing her problems. Of particular concern to all the accountants has been the absence of records showing how property values are assessed. Without such a paper trail, decisions made by Ward to lower property values cannot be monitored.

Who gains from the state-certified incompetence, the convenient confusion, the utter bumbling that has been shown, again and again, to permeate Doris Ward's shop?

Grant Flint, the recently retired chief appraiser of Alameda County, put it this way, in a letter he sent to the Assessment Appeals Board last fall: "Tax agents and attorneys mock the San Francisco assessor's office. Entire careers have been built off the assessor's office's weaknesses. Appraisal agents and attorneys feed off of it."

Influential commercial property owners don't seem to do so badly, either.

Last year alone, Doris Ward's policies cost San Francisco city government a sum of money that could have renovated City Hall, or launched a satellite into outer space. The $100 million lost to apparently improper Prop. 8 tax breaks could pay a year's rent in a nice condo for every homeless person in San Francisco; end child hunger in California; fund the government's portion of a football stadium in Bayview-Hunters Point; build a hospital wing; or take every single person in San Francisco out to a $133 dinner.

Of course, for any of those things to happen, it seems fairly certain that a person named Doris Ward would have to be turned out of the Assessor's Office. And who would want to do that? She's so darn nice.

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