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Decision leaves Stone unturned

Larry Stone is pleased as punch and the Santa Clara County assessor is not one to hide his feelings. This time, he’s got good reason to be pleased with himself and the work of his office: He’s just survived a $1 billion challenge to his assessment process. Now, being the assessor is one of those usually thankless jobs.

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Everybody always believes they’re paying too much and that their property assessment is too high. That’s a constant, whether values are rising or falling. Of late, Mr. Stone and his corps of number crunchers have been busily lowering assessments on Santa Clara County business and commercial property, trying to bring assessments in line with post-bubble conditions. That involves the tricky task of evaluating the worth of highly technical equipment that is unique to one company in one location.

Even that process is a no-win deal for an assessor.

The local governments are screaming that he’s being too aggressive, thereby cutting their revenue stream, crippling their budget plans and forcing them to cut popular programs. Local businesses are screaming that he’s not moving fast enough, costing them money that they desperately need to keep their businesses moving ahead in these tough economic times.

Yet, somehow, candidates are eagerly lining up to replace Mr. Stone on the assumption that he soon will be leaving office.

Not so fast.

Mr. Stone is arguably at the top of his game.

Intel, no lightweight as the county’s second largest property tax payer, appealed its assessment, arguing it was entitled to a $15 million tax rebate. After examining the complex evidence offered by both sides, the review board issued a strong endorsement of the work done by Mr. Stone’s team.

Yes, Intel can and will say it won a $1 million rebate.

But in the final analysis, the ruling found the assessor’s office roughly 90-plus percent correct. And the language of the ruling was a clear message to Intel and others similarly afflicted: Quit your whining.

That’s an impressive vote of confidence for the office and a chilling shot across the bow of other property owners who might be considering a challenge.

After the dust settles and the lawyers are paid, one has to wonder if Intel broke even on the appeal. Still, appeals are a valid check on the system and one has to admire Intel’s willingness to acknowledge it had lost in a fair fight.

The judgment is also a win for local governments. Much as they may howl about falling valuations, they recognize that the culprit is the economy, not Larry Stone and his team.

Mr. Stone has brought a professional level of performance to an unpleasant and technically difficult task. He’s done it with style and — generally — with grace.

With this ruling, he’s also brought a level of certainty to the calculation that will allow local government officials to see more clearly what kind of a hand they have to play. And having a level of certainty about the rules of the game is really all any of us can ask or expect.

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David K. Ginsborg

 
  • Deputy to the Assessor
  • Phone: 408-299-5588

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