Gooden, Hess seek position of Berkeley Co. assessor

October 05, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - One of the candidates seeking the Berkeley County assessor's position has worked in the office for nearly 18 years. The other worked in a peripheral role for several years, beginning more than a decade ago.

Both of the candidates - Larry Hess, a Democrat, and Preston B. Gooden, a Republican - share one common goal: They want to keep assessments fair, they said.

The assessor examines all county real estate and personal property and places a market value on it. That value is used to determine how much in taxes residents pay. The assessor does not determine at what rate taxes will be charged.


Assessors are elected to four-year terms and earn a base salary of $37,400, plus an extra $15,000 a year for performing special duties, including collecting dog taxes, processing and verifying farm applications and timberland management applications, and doing various state-required studies.

Hess and Gooden will face off in the general election on Nov. 2.

Preston B. Gooden

Gooden said he is basing his campaign for assessor on an often overlooked and underpaid resource - the staff.

Gooden said if he is elected he will "go to bat" for his employees to ensure they have competitive wages, a good working environment and adequate training.

"I will be a strong constitutional officer," said Gooden, who worked for 20 years as a West Virginia State Police trooper and then served as Berkeley County's sheriff from 1989 to 1996.

Gooden, 64, of Marlowe, W.Va., is retired.

He said good training and wages will help cut down on the number of exonerations currently being granted by the assessor's office.

"I'm talking about stacks of them," Gooden said.

As sheriff, Gooden oversaw both the law enforcement and tax divisions of the sheriff's department. He said he knows how the assessor's office is run because of his prior experience with the related tax department, can prepare a budget, oversee an office and speak with the County Commissioners.

If he is elected, Gooden said he will bring in a chief deputy who has 22 years of experience.

"You just gotta have the right people in the right places and have decent wages," Gooden said.

He advocates having the county's elected Constitutional officers, including the County Commissioners, meet occasionally to discuss problems, including salaries that he said are too low.

Making sure appraisals are fair is another priority. Gooden said he has heard complaints that some appraisals have not been fair.

Larry A. Hess

Larry A. Hess, who has worked in the Berkeley County Assessor's Office since 1986, said dramatic increases in assessments are a problem.

People understand if their property value increases 10 percent to 15 percent, but sometimes assessments increase by 150 percent to 175 percent, he said.

"I wouldn't do that if I was elected," he said. "The increases should match the actual conditions of the market."

Hess said he always tries to assess properties on the lower end of the scale because, ultimately, assessments are based on opinions.

"And when you're dealing with opinions and the public's tax bills, the only place to be is on the low side," he said.

Hess, 54, of Martinsburg, now works as the senior appraiser in charge of all commercial appraisals. He previously worked as a real estate agent and opened his own real estate and appraisal office.

Hess questioned Gooden's plan to bring in a chief deputy. "We don't have a chief deputy at this point. We haven't had a chief deputy for several years," he said.

Instead of hiring such a deputy, the money, if it's handed over by the County Commissioners, could instead be used to hire two appraisers, Hess said.

He said his experience in the assessor's office makes him the most qualified candidate, given that a new computer system will soon be installed, appeals for higher assessments begin in January and the office will be moved into another building.

"If you've got somebody in there that doesn't know what's going on, it's going to be a problem," he said.

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