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  Vorderbrueggen: Chevron's Failed Appeal Delivers Ironies Aplenty
April 9, 2012

Vorderbrueggen: Chevron's failed appeal delivers ironies aplenty

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times

Posted:   04/07/2012 05:59:00 PM PDT
Updated:   04/09/2012 06:35:30 AM PDT

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FILE - This April 21, 2008 file photo shows a Chevron flag flying over... ((AP Photo/Ben Margot))
There's enough irony in Chevron's property tax appeal defeat this week to build another Eiffel Tower.
First, the oil giant argues it's owed a $73 million refund but instead the county slaps them with a $27 million bill for additional property taxes on its Richmond refinery for tax years 2007-09.
Then, Contra Costa cities and special districts suing the county over the calculations used to bill them for Chevron's successful 2004-06 refund get a philosophy lesson: Live by litigation, die by litigation.
These 28 agencies outside Richmond, which didn't receive any of Chevron's tax money, argue they shouldn't have had to repay money they never got.
But will these agencies whistle the same tune when the county, using the same formula, divvies up the extra taxes Chevron must pay and delivers a windfall they admit they wouldn't have received otherwise?
The most bizarre twist, though, is the characterization of Contra Costa County Assessor Gus Kramer as a Big Oil sympathizer. He says he's gotten nasty phone calls and even death threats.
This absurd notion is an inaccurate interpretation of the county appeals board's findings.
It is true that the board boosted the refinery's taxable worth by 10 to 23 percent over the numbers Kramer calculated for years 2007, 2008 and 2009.
There are reasons for the gap -- and we are asking what they are -- but the odds that Kramer undervalued the refinery as a favor to Chevron are lower than a frog's belly in mud.
Remember, Chevron and Kramer have been waging a nasty multimillion-dollar legal war over this refinery for years.
Kramer has valued the refinery since 2004 at amounts two-, three- and even fivefold higher than what Chevron said it was worth.
He has compared Chevron to a vile wife-beater who publicly pledges to change his ways but raises his fists behind closed doors.
In response, the county's largest taxpayer has filed eight straight appeals of Kramer's assessments and followed up in Superior Court.
Its lawyers have gone after Kramer personally in appeal testimony and briefs, portraying him as incompetent, a liar and a lawbreaker who destroyed public documents and fabricated others.
On the political front, company advocates are pushing elected county supervisors, who have been direct or indirect beneficiaries of Chevron's campaign spending, to intervene.
No, if Kramer is Chevron's friend, the oil company is a poor friend.
So, why is there a $360 million to $1 billion chasm between the refinery taxable values set by Kramer and those of the appeals board?
We may never know.
Appraising a refinery is incredibly complex and much of the analysis is confidential under proprietary rules.
As the board's three members wrote in their opinion, Kramer produced no evidence of how he calculated his numbers and they didn't buy Chevron's, so the panelists gleaned figures they deemed reasonable from the reams of consultants' reports submitted by both sides.
Interestingly, the latest opinion is generating a second critical look at the board's 2004-06 decision, which reached the opposite conclusion and found that Chevron had been overcharged.
At the time, the county counsel's office privately blasted the first opinion as a legal train wreck but the appeals board issued it anyway.
"Comparing the two opinions, it's pretty clear that there was some incompetence in the first decision," a source close to the process said.
The board has five members -- one appointed by each county supervisor -- but only three sit on each appeal.
Among the three 2004-06 panelists, only Clark Wallace heard both appeals. Supervisor John Gioia replaced Joe Fisher after allegations surfaced that he was too closely tied to Chevron.
The third member and chairman, Bob Brooks, remains on the board but did not hear the second Chevron challenge.
Brooks' term ends in November and given the contrary opinion unveiled this week, some privately question whether Supervisor Federal Glover will reappoint him.
Many questions remain unanswered but one thing is clear: the fat lady hasn't trilled her last note in this story yet.
AND FINALLY: Assessor Gus Kramer whines about how cities never thank him when property values skyrocket and tax revenues fill their coffers but are the first to bludgeon him when the market tanks and budgets shrink.
The Chevron ruling is a golden opportunity for cities to redeem themselves, Kramer says.
When those windfall checks arrive, Kramer suggests cities send flowers, thank-you notes, chocolates, or maybe a nice pinot, to 2530 Arnold Drive, Suite 400, Martinez.
The assessor should wear gloves when he opens those packages. Just sayin'.
Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, www.ibabuzz.com/politics or at Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.