News Column

Chevron Challenges Contra Costa Property Tax Appeal Panelists

Feb 22, 2013

Lisa Vorderbrueggen

In the latest legal rocket in the war between Chevron and Contra Costa County over property taxes levied on the oil giant's Richmond refinery, the company seeks to disqualify the three appeals board members set to hear the company's 2010-12 tax appeals.

The company alleges that Assessment Appeals Board members Art Walenta, James Giacoma and Clark Wallace cannot impartially judge because they are named in Chevron's two lawsuits challenging board decisions for 2004-06 and 2007-09.

"The board members cannot be adverse advocates in that litigation and impartial adjudicators in the instant appeals," reads Chevron's written objections filed with the appeals board.

This is Chevron's second attempt to disqualify a board member. In 2011, it unsuccessfully challenged Walenta on the grounds that as former Contra Costa County counsel and retiree, he had a financial incentive to keep taxes high.

The company also alleges the trio demonstrated bias and prejudice against Chevron and its witnesses during the appeals process.

In addition, Giacoma is likely to be called as witness to testify about events that took place while he worked at the Assessor's Office, according to the company's complaint. Giacoma retired in 1996 after working 37 years for the county.

"Floored" is how Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond described his reaction.

Replacing the trio would sacrifice valuable expertise and institutional knowledge in a

highly technical and specialized assessment area, Gioia said.

And state law mandates that at least three of the five appeals board members must hear appeals

"Chevron has made these individuals adversaries because they are suing them, but if these members are disqualified, there wouldn't be enough members left to hear their appeals," Gioia said. "Chevron's continued effort to use every legal process on the books to stack the deck in their favor is costing the county and its taxpayers tremendous sums of money."

The disqualification request will be heard, per appeals board policy, by a member not named in the objections.

The board has assigned Harold D'Ambrogia. The other remaining board member, Bob Brooks, sat on the 2004-06 Chevron appeal panel.

"As one of the largest property taxpayers in Contra Costa Country and one of the largest taxpayers in California, we are committed to paying our fair share of taxes, but we need a fair and transparent process for calculating and appealing our property taxes in the County," said Chevron spokesman Sean Comey.

Chevron's challenge is the company's latest move in a 10-year dispute that shows no signs of ending.

The company has filed lawsuits in Contra Costa Superior Court challenging the Assessment Appeals Board decisions for 2004-06 and 2007-09 property taxes.

In the 2004-06 round, the board determined the refinery taxable value as set by Assessor Gus Kramer was too high. Chevron received a $17.8 million property tax refund but filed a lawsuit anyway, arguing it wasn't enough.

Chevron sought an additional $73 million property tax refund for years 2007-09.

But the appeals board decided it paid too little, a ruling that cost the oil giant $27 million on top of the $129 million it already paid. The company filed a lawsuit last October.





Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)