City assessor under fire
Published 11:24 pm Saturday, February 9, 2013
Some of the seven appraisers in the City Assessor’s office feel their professional judgment is under constant question by a department head less qualified than they are, sources close to the office claim.
Venting their frustration on the condition of anonymity, insiders claim city assessor Jean Jackson puts her personal touch on practically every land assessment in Suffolk.
Jackson’s frequent overruling, sources claim, meant that last year appraisers argued in vain that the beleaguered real estate market warranted a much steeper reduction in assessments than the 1.75 percent she ultimately granted.
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Jackson was “more concerned with the amount of the decrease than whether the (supporting market) data was right or wrong,” one insider said.
Widespread over-assessments in one large section of the city, and in several neighborhoods where unqualified sales significantly outstripped arm’s-length sales, is apparently the outcome of Jackson’s alleged mistrust toward her some of her staff appraisers.
According to city records and sales data, the average parcel of vacant land in Suffolk’s south and west that last year changed hands in a qualified sale is assessed at 50 percent more than its sales price. Nine out of 10 sold below the city’s assessment.
Meanwhile, in neighborhoods where both the market and commonsense dictate it should be worth less, the city has the land-only portion of lots assessed at or above richer neighborhoods.
For example, the land in Burnett’s Mill, behind Obici Hospital off Godwin Boulevard, hovers around $63,000. And it sits around $69,500 in Beamon’s Mill, off the southern end of Nansemond Parkway. But in North Suffolk’s comparatively swanky Chatham Woods and Warrington Estates, where homes can sell for 50 percent more, land is typically assessed at around $63,000.
Responding to her alleged tendency to stamp values above what her appraisers recommend — a possible factor in such distortions — Jackson said the assessor has “final authority.”
“I wouldn’t say that it (overruling) happens often, but yes, it can happen, because different situations can arise,” she said.
Other allegations by sources, which have been detailed in an unsigned letter to City Council members last month, suggest Jackson’s “micromanagement” tendencies extend beyond overruling her staff.
“There’s a problem with processes and time management,” said one source who described Jackson’s assessing approach as “extremely cumbersome” and “totally prohibitive to being able to carry out the main function of this office.”
“Inter-office communication is poor,” the source continued. “They are constantly changing the processes — we do it, then they change how they want it done. … Everyone’s frustrated for having to redo their work over and over again.”
Another frustration sources cited was an almost-four-month moratorium on taking leave so appraisers could discuss assessments with concerned taxpayers and prepare for appeals to Suffolk’s Board of Equalization, whose caseload last year far outstripped that of other Hampton Roads cities.
“It’s not unusual to get 20 or 30 phone calls right after … notices go out, and it will go like that for about a week,” one source remarked. “We have to return every call.”
Jackson said she “extended the period of time to allow anybody who has issues (or) concerns to come forward to the office,” and she said she will likely do the same this year.
The assessment workload of Jackson’s seven appraisers is yet another contention broiling within her office. According to one source, each appraiser handles 7,000 to 8,000 parcels — far beyond the average 2,500 parcels from a 1986 International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) survey of 127 municipalities with computer assistance. An IAAO spokeswoman said staffing benchmarks will be updated later this year.
“All city employees are probably handling more than they normally would, based on the economic times,” responded city Chief of Staff Debbie George, who sat in on two interviews with Jackson.
Many of those questioning assessments in Suffolk also question whether Jackson is qualified for the job.
City Council appointed her as an interim in April 2011 and as the official assessor a little more than four months later. Both votes were added to the respective meeting agendas as new business and received unanimous support without any questions from members.
Before taking up residence in the Assessor’s Office, Jackson had since 2005 served on the Board of Equalization, which adjudicates assessment appeals.
George indicated that a copy of Jackson’s resume — requested for this story — was unavailable, saying one was never submitted, because there was no formal application process for the position.
But Jackson graduated from college with a major in business administration and minor in accounting, according to a 2011 city new release. She has worked as a tax preparer for years and continues to do so in her own time, she said.
She has been a certified real estate appraiser since 1992, state records confirm, and taught appraising at Paul D. Camp Community College, the news release states.
Jackson’s education would appear to fall short of the “graduate degree or graduate-level course work” the International Association of Assessing Officers regards as “highly desirable” for her position.
“Since she accepted the job, it has become clearer as time has passed that she is unfamiliar with how our office functions,” reads the anonymous letter to council members. “She has consistently proven to lack an understanding of how a mass appraisal office should function.”
One source said, “It seems like when it comes to the valuations, there are staff in the office with far more experience, and she ignores their counsel and goes with people less experienced.”
Asked if she was qualified for her job, Jackson replied, “Yes, I am.” She said she has completed three courses toward her Assessment Administration Specialist designation and is scheduled to complete the final three before the end of the year.
While some members of her staff have been “unfairly” placed on performance plans, according to the anonymous letter to council, Jackson said she has raised competency levels by “having them take education courses.”
“I don’t care what organization you go into … (there are) areas of improvement, areas that could be strengthened, and that’s what my goal is: to strengthen the staff in all areas,” she said.
Human resources personnel began interviewing staffers in Jackson’s office shortly after the letter was sent to council members in late January, according to sources. George said she would “prefer not to comment” on whether the allegations are under investigation.
Jackson described the “emphasis on education” is her proudest achievement since joining the city.
“Part of that is also allowing people to take pride in their work and having the office transparent to the public, as well as customer service,” she said.
“Those are the things I have been striving for.”