Candidates for county assessor run on platforms of low taxes, service improvement

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In the wake of current Alameda County Assessor Ron Thomsen’s impending retirement, two candidates — Jim Johnson and Phong La — are campaigning for the position in this November’s election.

The assessor estimates the value of property within Alameda County. These assessments are taken into consideration in the determination of property taxes. The assessor, however, does not actually collect property taxes or establish county tax laws.

Johnson has worked 26 years at the assessor’s office and 10 as chief of the Assessment Services Division, where he said he works alongside the current assessor on a daily basis and has learned “every aspect” of the office. Thomsen has endorsed Johnson in the election, saying in a press release that he strongly encourages residents to vote for “the only experienced candidate.”

Johnson is running on a promise to provide Alameda County residents with the “lowest taxes legally allowed.” He added that he plans to prioritize transparency in regard to the office’s activities and resources for residents.

“We want to make things easier for them,” Johnson said. “That’s the whole name of the game.”

Johnson and two of his six children graduated from UC Berkeley. He said that each weekend, he and his sons place campaign signs in the ground around the county as part of his “very grassroots” campaign.

He is also running on a platform of stability, as he said the office benefits from consistency in staff. He said the current assessor has held the position for 18 years, and this longevity is because of the lack of politics in the position.

“We really wouldn’t like someone to come to take (the position) for a few years and go on to take another office,” Johnson said. “I’m in it for the long haul. This will be the last job I have, guarantee you that.”

Despite Thomsen’s endorsement of Johnson, La has the endorsement of the Alameda Democratic Party.

La is approaching the office from the outside, as a small businessman, attorney and former community college real estate professor. In 2008, after the financial crisis, La constructed a free legal clinic in Oakland to advise those at risk of losing their homes. During that time, he said he thought the county assessor’s office was not proactive and did not provide adequate resources to property owners who wanted to appeal their properties’ assessments. Ten years later, with Thomsen’s retirement, La joined the race to take his position.

La said the assessor’s office could benefit from an outsider who “understands real-life economics” and that the office lacked this perspective during the Great Recession. La said that in the next economic downturn, he wants a proactive office that treats residents with compassion.

La said he hopes to expand the assessor’s office role and responsibilities beyond its “enumerated duties.” Some of his ideas include advocating for projects to help the homeless population, introducing workshops for residents explaining citizen rights in regard to the assessment appeals process and creating additional offices around the county.

“Yes, we have a specific role and duty in the assessor’s office,” La said. “But we should think outside of the box.”

La believes the work of the assessor’s office is “right up (his) alley” and said he will be in office for as long as he stays elected.

La has been a resident since he was two years old when he and his family found refuge from Vietnam in Alameda County.

“I’m a firm believer in, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’ ” La said.

Both Johnson and La beat out two other candidates — John Weed and Kevin Lopez — for county assessor in this year’s primary election. In that primary, 25 percent of Alameda County residents who voted did not pass a vote for assessor. Johnson would ideally like all residents to pass a vote this November.

“Rather than just leave it blank, please vote,” Johnson said.

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.