Normally, the race for Contra Costa County Assessor wouldn't generate much interest. But this year's race has turned out to be a bruising battle over Chevron. Incumbent Gus Kramer, who has sought to force large corporations to pay more property taxes over the years, is squaring off against challenger Bob Brooks, who was on a county panel that awarded Chevron a $12.6 million property tax refund last fall. And if that weren't enough, the Contra Costa Times has endorsed the Chevron-friendly candidate and published a series of critical articles on the incumbent without publicly revealing that it, too, is seeking a large taxpayer refund that he is refusing to award.
Let's start with Kramer. He's made numerous friends and enemies over the years. Voters tend to like him because he's been proactive about lowering homeowners' property tax bills after the housing crash by decreasing their assessments. It's a key job of any good assessor. But it also makes politicians angry, because when taxes go down, public revenues decline with them, forcing officials to cut the budget.
Kramer also has been unpopular in the business community, because he's been slower to lower commercial property tax bills. Take Chevron. The oil giant filed an appeal after he refused to lower the assessed value of its Richmond refinery in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Kramer had assessed the property as worth $2.5 billion in 2004, $2.6 billion in 2005, and $2.7 billion in 2006. Chevron, by contrast, valued its property much lower — at $600 million, $940 million, and $1.14 billion in those three years.
Enter E.R. "Bob" Brooks. A longtime Antioch real estate agent and bail bondsman, he was appointed to the Contra Costa County Assessment Appeals Board by Supervisor Federal Glover. The appeals board took up the Chevron matter, and Brooks and the two other panelists ruled that Kramer had overvalued Chevron's land and said the cash-strapped county should refund it $12.6 million.
The move drew outrage, because it stripped away funds from social services and health care and handed it to one of the world's richest corporations. "Brooks has a reputation for sucking up to big business and he lived up to it," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, who has stood up repeatedly to the oil giant over the years. "Kramer assessed Chevron's property accurately, if not undervaluing it."
Brooks didn't return phone calls for this story. But Kramer said in an interview that Brooks told him he had met privately with oil company representatives during the appeals process in apparent violation of ethical rules. "He told me he met ex-parte with Chevron," Kramer said. "I thought, 'Wow, you're admitting this to me?'"
So why is the CoCo Times endorsing Brooks over Kramer, too? Kramer says the paper has it out for him because it contends that he overvalued its property by $36 million from 2006 through 2009. According to county documents, the Times states that Kramer's office assessed its Walnut Creek property at $17 million in 2006, when it should have been $10 million; $29.2 million in 2007, when it should have $15 million; and $29.5 million in 2008, when it should have been $15 million. But the newspaper has never informed readers about the dispute.
Kramer insisted in an interview that the property assessment is accurate and that it increased to equal the price MediaNews paid for the newspaper when it purchased it from Knight Ridder. "When they purchased the property from Knight Ridder, they publicly declared its value," Kramer said of MediaNews. "But now they're saying, 'We want you to assess that property at 50 percent less.'"
Kevin Keane, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, runs the CoCo Times and the Oakland Tribune's news department and said he was unaware of his company's property assessment appeal and its dispute with Kramer. He also said it had no influence on his newspaper's coverage of Kramer or its endorsement of Brooks. "It's nonsense," he said. "It's irrelevant to our coverage."
In addition to the endorsement, the newspaper published a series of hard-hitting stories last summer on Kramer, and revealed that he is no choir boy. The paper discovered considerable evidence that Kramer has used his office to settle personal disputes and to enrich himself. In one case, for example, the property taxes on his son's home skyrocketed after and he and his son had a falling out and his son refused to allow him to see his grandchildren, the paper reported. And in another case, Kramer avoided paying thousands in property taxes after buying a home that involved a disputed deed. Kramer promptly paid the debt after the newspaper began making inquiries and blamed the discrepancies detailed in the articles to alleged mistakes by his office.
The CoCo Times, however, had filed its property assessment appeal with the county well before publishing the exposés about Kramer or endorsing his opponent, thereby creating at least an appearance of a conflict of interest. And Kramer said he told the CoCo Times reporter who wrote the series about him about the newspaper's financial dispute with his office. But he said the reporter, Matthias Gafni, brushed him off. Gafni did not return an e-mail request for comment for this story.