July 22, 2004
There are two choices for Maricopa County assessor in the Sept. 7 primary election — or no choice if you happen to vote Democrat.
Republican Keith Russell of Mesa is challenging GOP incumbent Kevin Ross of Gilbert for the office, duties of which include determining property value for tax purposes.
Russell is taking on an incumbent fighting a criminal indictment on malfeasance in office.
But Russell said he doesn't see it as all that helpful.
Ross is a formidable opponent because he's spent two terms in the office, giving the public eight years to recognize his name. Russell said that while he has been tracking his opponent's case, he is not using it as ammo in any political offensive.
"I'm not running on his problems. I'm running on what I'm offering voters," he said.
Ross was indicted on May 27 on two counts of conflict of interest of a public officer and one count of obstructing a criminal investigation. The indictment stems from accusations that he provided a list from his office of low-income seniors who applied for a benefit of freezing their property tax valuations.
Ross has steadfastly denied the allegations, but others — including his former chief deputy and the man to whom the list was leaked — testified that Ross gave up the confidential names to earn money.
Ross and his attorney, John Hannah, were in Maricopa County Superior Court on July 15 for a pretrial conference. Ross' criminal trial was scheduled for Sept. 30.
Ross didn't sound too worried, saying he is confident a trial would only prove his innocence.
"I've never allowed any confidential information out of my office, and I have never been compensated in any way other than my salary up until that indictment," Ross said.
In fact, Ross lists the very program he is accused of exploiting as an accomplishment.
"Kevin saw too many of our older citizens losing their homes because of increasing property taxes they could ill afford on their fixed incomes," his Web site states. "Kevin took the initiative and did something about it. He helped draft and nurtured through the 'Senior Home Ownership Protection Act.' ”
Ross would not be the first politician in Arizona history to be re-elected amid criminal charges against him. Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Jim Irvin, a Republican, beat Democratic challenger James Walsh in November 2002 even though voters were aware of the shadow of criminal charges over his campaign. Irvin, who eventually resigned his seat under threat of impeachment, was accused of improperly interceding in a bidding war for Southwest Gas, thwarting efforts of a competitor and then concealing his activities.
There is no Democrat running in the race to challenge the winner of the primary election.
Ross said he is seeking re-election so he can continue the improvements the office has been making lately. The office is handling an incredible amount of parcel assessments, largely because of a huge construction boom in the Valley right now. Under Ross' tenure, the office has also developed a Web site that handles about 400,000 hits a month, and his direction has helped cut down bureaucratic time for new construction from 18 months to about 30 days, he said.
Russell said the office is perhaps one that the voting public doesn't know much about.
The most important thing the assessor does is valuations on real property in the county, which determine the amount the property will be taxed. Therefore it helps to have someone in the office who knows exactly how to do that, Russell argues.
Russell has 19 years experience as a professional property appraiser.
"We need to have an appraiser heading up the assessor's office," Russell said. "If you want to know well of a job your office is doing you have to be able to do it yourself or hire somebody."