Property tax staff under scrutiny


By NANCY COOK LAUER

Stephens Media Hawaii

One employee is under investigation and another has apparently quit his moonlighting real estate practice after a summer of turmoil in the county Real Property Tax Division.

Finance Director Nancy Crawford, who oversees the division, said Monday that procedures have always been in place to ensure there is no conflict of interest between the public duties of the 43 staff members and their professional and personal lives.

But a formal conflict of interest policy was not put into writing until June.

It’s a balancing act finding county employees to fill specialized technical positions in a small island community while expecting them to steer free of conflicts of interest. It’s an especially touchy subject when it comes to assessing property for tax purposes — an issue that literally hits home for property owners across the county.

“We really take this seriously. It’s important for the Real Property Tax Division to be totally above-board and absent any conflicts,” Crawford said. “I stand behind the integrity of the Real Property Tax Division and all of our department.”

Two of the employees in the division are licensed real estate agents, three are licensed property appraisers and one is married to an officer of an appraisal company that represents property owners appealing their assessments to the Tax Board of Review.

The written policy forbids employees from being involved in any official action in which they, a sibling, parent, child or household member have a financial interest. Employees may hold professional licenses such as in the area of real estate sales or property appraisals, but they are banned from using the license for personal gain anywhere in the county, unless approved in advance by the Finance director and in accordance with the county ethics code.

One of the real estate agents, Michael Drutar, told the Board of Ethics last week that he was suspended without pay and is under investigation after he told his supervisor he wanted to disqualify himself from assessing a parcel because he had had conversations with the owner in the past in his role of private-sector real estate agent. Drutar agreed to an open session with the board, waiving his confidentiality privilege.

Drutar, a Real Property Appraiser II, has been with the department 14 months, appraising West Hawaii property. He said he makes $36,000 a year in his county job, and had always expected to also sell real estate to help make ends meet.

Drutar said he believes the ethics code allows him to continue his part-time work as a real estate agent provided he disqualifies himself from any property where it may appear to be a conflict of interest. He told the Board of Ethics that he felt singled out for disciplinary action because other employees haven’t been suspended without pay for their own private-sector work. He said other conflicts of interest are also going on in the department.

“They have people assessing their own personal places,” he charged.

Drutar withdrew his petition after Ethics Board members said they did not want to be put into the position of validating or invalidating a department policy. Several told Drutar he should let the current union grievance procedure play out rather than getting the Board of Ethics involved.

Crawford said she couldn’t talk about personnel issues, but she denied that any employees are assessing their own property. She said the county has a long-standing practice of scrutinizing the division’s employees’ assessments. She gets an annual report showing how much each employee’s property is assessed for, whether it went up or down and how it compares with similar properties, she said.

“They are not to ever touch their own property,” Crawford said. “If there is even an allegation, we investigate. If there is an issue or complaint, we investigate, because we take it very seriously.”

Another employee, Jaime Ortiz, a Real Property Appraiser V in Hilo, is still shown as a real estate agent with property listings of up to $1.8 million on the Century 21 website. But when Stephens Media Hawaii called the office Monday, the newspaper was told he no longer worked there.

Ortiz did not return a message left on the cellphone number listed on the Century 21 website.

Ortiz’ wife, Jasmin Bloom-Ortiz, is an officer and registered agent for Bloom Appraisers Inc. of Hilo, according to annual reports filed with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. With Bloom-Ortiz as secretary, Robert Bloom as president, Bebi L.K. Bloom as vice president and Aliza Bloom as treasurer, the apparently family-owned company advertises on its website that it is able to “professionally and persuasively” testify at appeal hearings to get assessments lowered.

When asked if there is any potential conflict between her husband’s job setting property assessments and her company’s job appealing them, Bloom-Ortiz twice declined comment and hung up on the newspaper. A detailed message left on the Ortiz home answering machine was not returned by press time.

Crawford declined comment on specific employees, but reiterated that there will be employees in similar fields as their spouses.

“We have a number of employees where their spouses work in the same arena. I don’t think it automatically raises any conflict of interest,” Crawford said. “I don’t think we have any problem in our Real Property Tax Division. If there is an issue, we are taking care of it.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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