A talk with Alpine County's tax man

Alpine County's low population and small-scale government provide an excellent window on how its officials make it work. I plan to write about its elected officials - going down the list alphabetically; therefore this first account is about David Peets who heads the assessor's office.

Peets was an appraiser in San Luis Obispo County when he visited Lake Tahoe on a skiing vacation. He had seen a flyer that Alpine County was looking for an assessor and ventured into the county to inquire. He was surprised to be selected over the 27 that had applied, mainly, he feels, because of his varied experience, not only as an assessor but also because of his eight years in building construction. That work included custom homes, apartments, and other structures. Following an injury he was retrained as an assessor. That ski vacation was in 1986, and since then he's been Alpine County's assessor.

The assessor's work is essential for it provides the basis for taxing property that raises their money for essential services such as fire suppression, policing, roads, health and welfare. While most accept the services not everyone is happy paying for them; some, it would seem, are against being taxed at all. This can make the assessor's work quite stressful as he assesses citizens' real and personal property. He finds that some people, although a minority, take umbrage and get quite personal with expressions such as "You'll ruin me!" or "You'll make me move!" But the assessor must follow the law, without favoritism. Peets sees that as his responsibility, and he is highly respected in the county. He has been re-elected to office five times, four without opposition and the fifth no serious challenger.

The assessor is required to inventory all real and personal property in the county and decide what is taxable and its worth. Because of California's Proposition 13 the basic assessment is made when the home is first built or resold. Real property includes homes and land while personal property covers such things as boats, airplanes, and mobile homes (but not cars or motorcycles). He then determines the property's value based on what comparable homes or personal property are selling for. In any event, once assessed, the initial tax can only be raised 2 percent per year, unless of course, if the property is resold. If a homeowner makes an improvement, for example a small building for wood or tools, the whole property is not reappraised; only the value of the improvement is added to the person's tax.

Figuring out how to assess property is complicated because the assessor must know the tax laws, both California's and the federal government's. They are complex and there are constant changes. If state taxes are not paid he can have a lien placed on the property and it can be sold.

An assessor must pass an appraiser's certification test, and Peets has been certified as an appraiser for 25 years and holds an advanced certificate. The State's Board of Equalization audits the assessor's work every four years.

Peets and his wife Terri live in Markleeville. They have a daughter Dena in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a son, Justin who will be a junior at Douglas High School in the fall.

We tend to take government for granted and don't give it much thought except when things go awry or when we feel our interests are threatened. Yet things do work; just think of countries where laws are not followed, where it is understood that the purpose of governing is for officials to pad their pockets. We are fortunate that most of our officials are honest and dedicated, and things get done.

-- Irving Krauss is a Markleeville resident.


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