In every county or city, the job of assessing the value of residential and commercial real estate is a big deal, because the tax revenues that flow from those assessments provide the vast majority of a local government’s funding. In Loudoun County, the richest county per capita in America, about 70 percent of its revenues comes from real estate taxes.
So it was surprising to many when Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors in April suddenly fired their highly regarded assessor, Todd Kaufman, and then last month transferred the assessor duties over to the Commissioner of the Revenue, Bob Wertz.
Was this some sort of power play by Wertz to expand his kingdom? Wertz and Supervisor Ralph Buona, chairman of the board’s finance committee, say no. The two events were unrelated, and transferring the assessment function to Wertz was not raised until well after Kaufman had been escorted out of the building and then paid nearly $149,000 in a lump-sum severance, Wertz and Buona told me this week. There are also good governing reasons for moving the assessor under the Commissioner of Revenue, as is done in many counties.
That leaves the question, still, of why Kaufman was suddenly canned without being given a chance to defend himself, after years of glowing evaluations, an overhaul of the ancient computer system and clearly improved assessments. This remains a mystery, and his name is like Voldemort around Loudoun County -- he who shall not be mentioned. A “personnel matter,” you know, which provides all sorts of legal cover.
Kaufman filed a defamation lawsuit against several county officials involved in the firing, and that could have unraveled the mystery — until a visiting Fairfax County judge last week dismissed Kaufman’s suit and said he had no case. The county could fire an at-will employee like Kaufman “because they didn’t like his shoes,” Judge R. Terrence Ney said, according to Erika Jacobson Moore in Leesburg Today.
Ney said the complaints made against Kaufman by his employees, and the provision of those to the board, did not constitute defamation. Kaufman issued a statement saying he will appeal Ney’s dismissal of his suit against County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, County Attorney John R. Roberts, assessor/whistleblower John Nelson and private investigator James Cross. He said he still did not know the true reason for his firing, and declined to comment further.
The long version of the chronology of Kaufman’s firing is here. But basically, the county board received an unsigned complaint from a disgruntled employee (Nelson) in March. Three weeks later, without speaking to Kaufman, he was ordered out of the county government building. The board then hired Cross to check out Nelson’s complaint, court records show. Cross’s report was done in May and found minor violations. The board refused Kaufman’s repeated requests to meet with them and provide his side. Kaufman was fired in June.
Now Kaufman knew he was an at-will employee, appointed by the Board of Supervisors. After the 2011 election, he said he asked several times if he needed to step down, and was told no by County Administrator Tim Hemstreet. Meanwhile, Hemstreet wrote glowing job evaluations of Kaufman every year.
But Kaufman cleaned up the assessment process, and this may have made him some enemies in Loudoun. He found that many properties in the wealthy county were severely under-valued, to the tune of $18 billion below market rate, and corrected that. He also lowered the number of properties not paying taxes from 4,000 to about 1,100. That perhaps made him about 2,900 more enemies, though this also brought in much more revenue for Loudoun County. Kaufman also won a number of awards from various state and national government associations for innovation and achievement.
How do you fire a guy like that? The cone of silence remains in place. Board Chairman Scott York (R) did not return my message. Hemstreet’s assistant would not even take my name and phone number. Buona at least spoke to me, but said he couldn’t discuss Kaufman.
And now Bob Wertz is overseeing the assessments as the Commissioner of the Revenue. Did he orchestrate all this as an evil plot? He chuckled at that suggestion
“What do I get out of this?” he said. “It's not like I get a huge raise, and I get twice as many people” to manage. “I told the board I would do it if they asked me.” He said that, chronologically, the process of shifting assessments to his realm was not connected to Kaufman’s ouster. Here’s how that breaks down.
In January 2012, immediately after taking office, the board launched a Goverment Reform Commission to examine ways to make the county more efficient. In April, while this was underway, Kaufman was suspended and the Cross investigation was begun.
In May, while Kaufman was awaiting the outcome of that, a subcommittee of the reform commission took an objective look at the assessor’s office and said it could be moved back to the Commissioner of the Revenue, where it was until 1985. Or not. It appended a 1998 memo Wertz had written about all this when an earlier board asked him about it.
Also in May, Cross submitted his confidential report. In June, Kaufman was fired. In July, he sued.
In August, the reform commission submitted its recommendation on the assessor’s office. It noted that the Board of Supervisors sets the tax rate, and then the assessor, who reports to the board, sets the property values. The setup gives the Loudoun board both functions, which created the possibility for political mayhem. The commission recommended separating them, to avoid the appearance of a conflict, to consolidate tax functions under one roof, and to collect some funds from the state that Loudoun wasn’t receiving because the revenue commissioner wasn’t doing assessments.
After a public hearing on the matter, the board asked Wertz if he would take on the additional responsibility — he said yes — and voted in December to shift the assessments back to the Commissioner of the Revenue.
I asked Wertz if they couldn’t have just shifted Kaufman, if he were still employed, under his aegis. He said yes, but because both were board appointees, it wouldn’t have worked because they had equal status.
I wondered if, having decided to make this important shift, they could have just allowed Kaufman to resign with honor, rather than escorting him from the building without an umbrella. He said the idea of the shift didn’t come until after Kaufman had already been ousted.
Buona cited the matter of the board both setting the tax rates and the property values as a possible conflict. “Even though we don’t feel there was a problem,” Buona said, “it just takes the perception out of it by separating the powers.”
He noted that the Commissioner of the Revenue already does personal property assessments and various other tax and fee collections. “So really you’ve just combined assessments under one umbrella,” he said. That in turn may require fewer people and offices and “save some shekels,” Buona said.
And he added, “Bob (Wertz) did not ask for this. Bob had to agree to it.” Firing Kaufman, in Buona’s view, “was more of a personnel matter. It really had nothing to do with the shift of assessments.”
Kaufman said in his statement this week, “Recent events establish that there were several agendas in action regarding the County Assessor and the management of the Assessor’s Office during 2012. This is something that Loudoun County residents should be concerned with. We plan to appeal the circuit court’s decision.” If his appeal succeeds, the legal bills for Loudoun could be costly.
For the regular taxpayer, all that really matters is if the assessments are accurate and the function is well-run. Assessments are usually released the third week in January, but because Wertz only took over a month ago, they will not be out until next month, Wertz said. We’ll see if he is able to keep the tax rates fair and equitable for the rapidly growing county.