With the embattled incumbent out of the picture, the general-election race for Pierce County assessor-treasurer is between an administrator already working in the office and someone who wants to move in.
Billie O’Brien, whose 21-year career on the assessor-treasurer staff includes her current position of administrative officer, is a first-time candidate.
Her opponent, Mike Lonergan, has previous experience campaigning and holding elected office as a former Tacoma City Council member. He has worked in the non-profit sector, currently as executive director of Youth Marine Foundation and formerly as the director of Tacoma Rescue Mission.
At the conclusion of voting Nov. 6, O’Brien or Lonergan will be the new head of the government agency that usually operates with little fanfare or public attention except when tax statements are being distributed to property owners.
There’s been more focus on the office than virtually any other time in its history during the four-year tenure of Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam, who will leave the post later this year. He finished a distant fourth in the five-candidate field in the primary election in August, ending his hope of winning a second term despite controversy that swirled around him. He has been the target of a failed recall attempt by citizens and $4 million in claims filed by employees of his office alleging mistreatment by him.
O’Brien, who lives near Puyallup, and Lonergan, a Tacoma resident, promise to restore confridence in the leadership of the office if they’re elected.
O’Brien says she’ll be able to do it because of her varied experience with the agency that assesses property valuations and maintains the county’s tax rolls. Her two-decades “as an appraiser, supervisor and manager makes me the most qualified” to immediately step into the top spot and understand the systems and overall operation of the office, she said.
Lonergan believes he has an edge on O’Brien because of his “successful experience as a chief executive” in charge of a large staff. For 12 years, he led 65 employees of the Rescue Mission, which earned the highest accreditation from the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. He also cites his eight years of government experience as a Tacoma councilman.
The assessor-treasurer oversees a staff of 80 employees.
During a candidate forum last Thursday in Eatonville, O’Brien said the staff “has been beaten down and not given the tools” to work efficiently.”It’s time for an assessor-treasurer who has a background in the office,” she added.
O’Brien didn’t participate in the forum, which was hosted by Eatonville Chamber of Commerce. But he has stated any problems in the office can be fixed with proper management.
The candidates agree that a better working environment and public profile for the office is needed.
“I will restore the shattered morale of the assessor’s office and lead it to become the best in the state,” Lonergan vowed.
“The citizens of Pierce County deserve an office environment where there is professional behavior from top management down,” O’Brien said..
O’Brien, 63, has spent a third of her life carrying out assessor-treasurer functions. For the last nine years as administrative manager, she’s had management responsibility for all work that doesn’t directly involve appraisals. Before that, she supervised18 field appraisers, two review and appeal appraisers, and three support staff members. She also has been a residential field appraiser and acting chief deputy assessor-treasurer.
Lonergan, 62, said he would ensure that appraisals are carried out “accurately and fairly” for all taxpayers.
Both candidates are natives of Pierce County.
In the primary election, Lonergan finished ahead of the field with about 40 percent of the votes. O’Brien was second with 23 percent.
The assessor-treasurer oversees assessment of property values and collection of the corresponding taxes. Revenue from the taxes helps fuel the budgets of the county and local governments to help pay for services such as schools, police and fire protection, libraries and parks.