By Pat Jenkins
As elected officeholders in Pierce County go, the assessor-treasurer is usually the least noticed. Except when tax statements are being distributed to property owners, the assessor-treasurer works in relative obscurity. It’s an apolitical, administrative job overseeing the assessment of property values and collection of the corresponding taxes that support the budgets of the county and local governments and help pay for schools, police and fire protection, libraries and parks.
The virtual anonymity of the office morphed into something much different while Dale Washam held it from 2009 through 2012. Controversy swirled around his constant but unsubstantiated claims of incorrect assessment practices by a previous assessor-treasurer. Washam also was the target of a recall attempt by citizens and $4 million in damage claims filed by employees in his office who alleged mistreatment by him.
Voters last year rejected Washam’s bid for re-election and instead replaced him with Mike Lonergan, who wants to return the assessor-treasurer reputation to its former days of quiet servitude. He officially took office in January and began to “restore the shattered morale of the assessor’s office and lead it to become the best in the state,” the goal he stated during last year’s election campaign.
In a question-and-answer sessiion with The Dispatch, Lonergan discussed his first days as assessor-treasurer, including his working relationship with Billie O’Brien, an administrator in the office who was his general-election opponent and now is one of his top lieutenants. O’Brien, part of the assessor-treasurer staff for more than 20 years, ran as a candidate who knew all aspects of the office from the inside, while Lonergan campaigned as someone who could give it fresh perspective and the experience of his previous management roles as executive director of Youth Marine Foundation and director of Tacoma Rescue Mission. He also is a former Tacoma City Council member.
The 62-year-old Lonergan said throughout the campaign that he had the right background to be the next assessor-treasurer and remove any public skepticism about the office left over from his predecessor. Now he’s getting to prove it.
Dispatch: You stated during your campaign that you wanted to fix a broken assessor-treasurer office. Now that you’re in charge of that office, are you finding more, less, or what you expected to fix?
Lonergan: I have met one-on-one with about half of our 73 employees already. I am finding a highly experienced professional staff, each with their own special training and skills. They tell me that already the positive mood and team spirit is greatly improved. What needs to be fixed is public perception – especially confidence that the assesor-treasurer’s staff is doing their job efficiently and honestly. Unfortunately, the focus for the last four years has been on allegations of wrongdoing. A big part of my job is to open the doors and windows of the department and explain the process by which property values and tax rates are determined. I’m also working on improved relations with other departments of county government, other county assessors and the state Department of Revenue.
Dispatch: Will Billie O’Brien, your general election opponent, remain in her position? And how would you characterize your working relationship with her so far?
Lonergan: Ms. O’Brien has been a part of the office for 23 years, and I pledged to her and the voters that I want her to keep up the good work she has been doing. Her job as administrator is to assist me in overseeing the varied functions of the treasurer’s half of our operation. Pierce County is the only one of Washington’s 39 counties that combines the positions of assessor and treasurer into one. Billie helps me by administering the setting of levy rates, tax exemptions, mobile home and personal property tax collection, customer service, mapping and forclosure. She is a pleasure to work with.
Dispatch: It’s still very early in your administration, but what is your perception of the assessor-treasurer staff as a whole and its attitude going forward?
Lonergan: All 73 of the staff members, from office assistants to commercial property appraisers, are holding their heads higher, smiling more and taking pride in their work. It’s a big job, setting tax values for over 330,000 pieces of property, and raising around $1 billion per year for the operation of 100 taxing districts, including schools, cities, fire districts and parks, as well as the county itself. Budget cuts the last few years mean that many staff members have taken on additional responsibilities as vacant positions have gone unfilled. Only the use of advanced technology and an efficient work schedule makes it possible for just 30 professional appraisers and a small support staff to keep track of changing property values in Washington’s second-largest county.
Dispatch: Running a campaign, and now settling in as an officeholder, are demanding and time-consuming. In your spare time, what do you do to refresh and get a mental break?
Lonergan: I’ve been active in the Gideons for 25 years, distributing Bibles and speaking in local churches. When we have a chance to get away, my wife Paula and I like to fish the lakes of eastern Washington. But I’d say our number one spare-time activity now is being grandma and grandpa to five little ones, ages 8 months to 7 years, all living in Tacoma.