It started innocently enough with a question at the Alameda Democratic Club last month about whether the four candidates for Alameda County assessor would favor greater oversight of corporations like Chevron in Contra Costa County, which in the past, have attempted to lower assessments of the Richmond Refinery by way of creative accounting.
Jim Johnson, an employee at the Alameda County assessor’s office seeking to replace the retiring Ron Thomson, gave a response that was more informational than opinionated, and said roughly one-quarter of the top 800 properties in the county require an audit every two years. In passing he mentioned large, complex accounts such as a plethora of somewhat secret cloud centers in Alameda County, in addition, to the Tesla plant in Fremont.
The mere mention of Tesla seemed to hang in the air for the other candidates, who referenced the electric car giant in their remarks until Phong La, a candidate who has amassed a large number of endorsements from well-known local officials, took it further, adding a political edge to a position intended to be unbias.
“Tesla would be my number one company. They didn’t allow their employees to unionize. They brought in workers from Eastern Europe, paid them 30 cents an hour, got them injured. When they bought that building it was pretty much vacant,” said La, referring to the sprawling auto plant in Fremont previously occupied by Nummi, which closed the factory in 2010.
“They’ve put in a lot of equipment since. I appreciate the fact they’ve been hiring a lot of people, but they still need to treat their people right and still have to pay their fair share,” he added.
Another candidate for the assessor’s seat, John Weed, a member of the Alameda County Water Board and former Ohlone Community College board member, did not directly address the mention of Tesla, but said the role of the office is to remain impartial when assessing county properties. “Staying on top of the various changes and complexities of the assessments, and applying the rules equitably can be an extraordinary challenge,” said Weed.
Kevin Lopez, a second candidate in the race who currently works at the county assessor’s office, echoed La’s statement toward Tesla, , in addition to Apple’s data centers and properties at the Port of Oakland. “There’s high tax dollars there, he said.
But La’s comments have reverberated through the campaign. His opponents have used the perceived threat against Tesla as a potential fundraising tool and hammer to procure political endorsements, particularly in Fremont and surrounding Southern Alameda County, where elected officials view Tesla as a creator of high-paying job as well as bask in the worldwide prestige afforded by the admired tech company.
In an interview later, La said he wrongly conflated his comments in Alameda about Tesla’s labor issues and the role of assessor. “There is no political litmus test for assessments. Everything else was about talking politics. I should have prefaced it better by saying, ‘Here’s two separate issues: Here’s my opinion on one issue and here’s how this issue is dealt with at the assessor’s office,” said La.
He maintains, though, that Tesla’s improvements at the Fremont property need to be fully reviewed. “The assessment for that equipment needs to take place because it’s all in Alameda County. I’m certain there’s going to be disagreement between the assessor’s office and Tesla. They’re going to want to lower their assessment as much as possible.
“If you tear down your house and build up a new house, it’s not going to be the same assessment as when you first bought it because it’s a totally new property. What has Tesla done to that property and does it trigger a re-assessment?”
To do the job, La said the assessor’s office will need extra training for analyzing new tech firms in the county, especially those, like Tesla, that rely on new types of robotic equipment.
The four-person assessor’s race is unlikely to produce a winner following the June 5 primary due to the number of candidates. Alameda County races operate under a run-off system. So if none of the primary candidates attract a majority of the vote in June, the top two finishers will advance to the November General Election.