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New assessor begins overhaul of department

LOS ANGELES — A four-year, $80 million overhaul of the county assessor’s “1970s-era, mainframe, green screen” technology will improve taxpayer access and streamline the work of appraising the county’s $1.3 trillion property tax roll.

Highlighting a review of his office by a “100-Day Transition Team” and pointing to the launch of a new department website as one key initiative already completed, county Assessor Jeffrey Prang underscored his department’s importance.

“We are the foundation of all government,” Prang said. “Before a teacher walks into a classroom, before a police officer responds to a call, before a city lays down a street, it has to be paid for and it’s paid for by property taxes and sales taxes.”

The new website is designed to make information easier for taxpayers to find and use online and on mobile devices. The ambitious plan to further upgrade legacy technology is one of 10 key initiatives reviewed by the transition team assembled by Prang in December.

The team, co-chaired by Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Perez and civil rights attorney Connie Rice, issued a 31-page report March 10 intended to serve as a “road map” to efficiency and fairness.

Prang highlighted efforts already underway to enhance ethics training and awareness.

“This department had a little drama,” Prang said, referring to his predecessor, John Noguez, who is still awaiting trial on charges that he misappropriated public funds by soliciting campaign donations in exchange for lower appraised property valuations.

“Turning the page on that chapter in this department’s history is of paramount importance,” Prang said.

The report’s feedback focuses on four key areas: modernizing technology, improving customer service, reinforcing integrity and ethics, and public outreach.

Galperin told reporters the technology upgrade amounted to “moving into the 21st century,” and Prang said he had used much of Galperin’s work for the city of Los Angeles as a model for change. The assessor’s website was redesigned by Socrata, the company that developed the controller’s new website.

It will be a big job to move from the largely paper-based systems and outdated technology built for the Assessor’s Office in the 1970s and 1980s to a state-of-the-art system. The department sets the value for nearly 2.5 million properties annually, and more than 9,000 rules are used in the appraisal process.

Pointing to problems with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s billing system and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s payroll program, the transition team warned of pitfalls.

Prang said his department had set up “lots of checks and balances” to avoid major missteps.

Other changes will be internal, as the Assessor’s Office — which appraises property values — works to coordinate more closely with the treasurer and tax collector — which applies tax rates and collects taxes — to create more of a one-stop shop for property owners.

Prang’s staffers are also dealing with a growing workload and a backlog of appeals.

The Assessment Appeals Board has a backlog of 30,000-40,000 cases being challenged by property owners. Prang said staffers are looking at ways to modify the appeals process, which involves various county departments, to speed up decision-making.

Forty percent of appeals go to a county hearing, nearly double the average of other counties, according to the transition team. Trying to resolve more challenges before a formal hearing and researching the best practices of other counties were two suggestions to expedite the process.

The transition team report also cited some holes in efforts to maintain high ethical standards, noting that some department employees didn’t know an ethics officer had been appointed to field concerns. The team also urged the assessor to implement the rest of his strategic plan related to ethics.

Prang said he was committed to “make sure that this department meets the highest ethical standards of any department in Los Angeles County.”