When Yolo County supervisors voted in November to combine two elected offices — county assessor and clerk-recorder — they set up a classic election battle between representatives from each office.
In one corner is Freddie Oakley, longtime clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, and in the other is David Schwenger, a senior real property appraiser, who has worked in the county assessor’s office for seven years.
Each brings experience and knowledge from their own respective offices, but if elected, will have to quickly get up to speed on the other.
One big difference, says Schwenger, is that while he’ll have a year and half to prepare for the next general election, Oakley would have to put together a tax roll within six months.
Occupation: Senior real property appraiser, current; independent fee appraiser, 2000-07, still licensed
Education: Bachelor’s degree, biological systems engineering, UC Davis; public- and private-sector advanced appraisal licenses for valuing all residential properties for financing and for taxation
Family: Wife Becky and seven children, ranging in age from 23 to 11
Noteworthy: Volunteer firefighter and secretary/treasurer, Madison Fire Department; board member/coach instructor, AYSO soccer; Esparto Lions Club; Woodland Sunrise Rotary Club; grows wheat and vegetables and raise chickens on their family farm near Esparto
And there’s a lot riding on that tax roll, he says.
“Yolo County had over $20 billion in assessed value last year,” Schwenger noted. “Those values determine the taxes paid and the services provided by the county.
“I have the highest-level license to value property,” he added, while Oakley still would have to pass a licensing test.
“It’s a judgment issue. You’re judging values, you’re interpreting code to determine value. We get into a lot of legal issues and have to subpoena records. Knowing when to do that is part of this.
“There is a lot to learn,” he added.
For his part, Schwenger began learning on the job 14 years ago.
He had graduated from UC Davis with a degree in biological systems engineering. He spent time in the tomato processing industry and working for an electrical contractor before becoming a certified residential real state appraiser, valuing real property for financial institutions.
In 2007, he was hired as an appraiser by current Yolo County Assessor Joel Butler and ultimately became the office’s senior real property appraiser.
Schwenger now has responsibility for appraising all agricultural land in the county, including everything covered by the Williamson Act. It’s a role, he said, “where it’s good to have a good working relationship with farmers.”
And he brings a unique perspective: Schwenger and his wife, Becky, have lived on a 36-acre farm north of Esparto since 2004.
They normally grow wheat, but with water in short supply this year, are focusing more on vegetables, Schwenger said.
They lead a busy life. Becky Schwenger is a paramedic/firefighter and engineer with the city of Ukiah and the couple have seven children, all between the ages of 11 and 24. Four of those children are former foster kids, siblings split up among various foster homes, until the Schwengers reunited and adopted all four of them, growing their family from five to nine in the blink of an eye.
Schwenger himself has taken on many of the duties of a rural Yolo County resident. He is a volunteer firefighter with the Madison Fire Protection District as well as a member of the Yolo County Farm Bureau.
Now he’s hoping to add his responsibilities.
Earlier this year, when Butler decided not to run for the newly consolidated office, he encouraged Schwenger to file papers, and has since endorsed him.
Butler had come under fire from some quarters — particularly the Board of Supervisors — for not making his office more accessible to the public. In discussions leading up to the merger of the clerk-recorder and assessor’s office, supervisors, including longtime farmer Duane Chamberlain, shared constituent complaints on a number of fronts: The office was closed on Fridays; the cost of appealing assessments was too high; and by not providing itemized business property equipment lists, the assessor left farmers wondering if they were being assessed for property they no longer owned.
Schwenger said some of the complaints are simply unfair. Inefficiencies grew out of staff cutbacks instituted by the Board of Supervisors, and only recently have they gotten everyone back, he said. Indeed, over the past 18 months, Butler made a couple of appearances before the board pleading for additional staff, which he recently received. The office is now open on Fridays as well.
As for the cost of appealing an assessment, that $45 fee was instituted by the Board of Supervisors, Schwenger said.
“That’s a board fee, not from the assessor,” he said.
However, he does see ways to improve operations. Complaints about the lack of itemized business property lists “is a system problem,” Schwenger said.
“There’s a way to resolve it. It’s a programming issue, and we mean to make business property more user-friendly,” he said. “It is a valid criticism,” and fixing it one of his priorities.
He also sees how merging the assessor’s office with clerk-recorder-elections provides many opportunities for efficiency.
“The assessor’s office still works under a large volume of paper records,” Schwenger said. “This office needs to migrate completely into the digital age. We have the technology in place, but we do not have the staffing to migrate the data from paper into that system.
“I would redirect the staff from elections during non-election years to assist the assessor’s staff to digitize and index the paper parcel records into working, sortable digital records.”
Schwenger said that even though the county eliminated annual elections in 2013, the elections department maintained the same level of staffing.
“We have staff that understand the county systems and processes, but are not needed in one department due to overstaffing. We need to retain these good people’s knowledge and experience and transfer them to staffing positions in other clerk-recorder/assessor’s offices where more help is needed, making us more efficient overall,” he explained.
“This saves jobs, retains knowledge and experience, and will breathe new life into understaffed offices,” Schwenger said. “The greatest benefit will be that we will have staff with knowledge in multiple services and practices, bringing a ‘bigger picture’ perspective as we merge these departments.”
That said, Schwenger, like his boss Butler, is wary of the merger.
County officials, he said, have told him it’s up to whoever is elected to run the consolidated office to lay out the blueprint for the merge.
“I think that’s extremely dangerous,” Schwenger said. “It’s ridiculous to sit here and consolidate without any kind of blueprint.
“The problem is you can consolidate and if you don’t have someone groomed, it’s a house of cards,” he said. “There are people at retirement age in the assessor’s office. If you replace them with friends and family … that’s a huge risk.”
Oakley, he said, has installed her son-in-law, Jeffrey Berry, as chief deputy recorder, something he concedes does not violate county policy, but that concerns him nonetheless.
If he’s elected, Schwenger said, all positions in the Clerk-Recorder/Assessor’s Office “will be filled solely by the applicant most qualified.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy