Two insiders with technical expertise and an outsider with a political pedigree want the Kern County Assessor-Recorder's office.
Chief Appraiser Jon Lifquist, appraiser Lupe Esquivias and Bakersfield City Council member Russell Johnson will face each other in the June 3 primary election.
If one person gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he will win outright. A split vote would send the race to a November runoff.
Kern's Assessor is the final arbiter of the official, taxable value of private property in Kern County, as well as the official keeper of county records and vital documents.
Property taxes received by local and state government are assessed using the office's appraisal of property value, making this low profile race a big deal.
Johnson worked on the staff of former state Senator Roy Ashburn and current Supervisor Mike Maggard, served on the city of Bakersfield Planning Commission and now represents Ward 7 on the Bakersfield City Council.
He's got the most polished sales pitch in the Assessor's race and, as the only candidate not from the office, a unique opportunity to sell himself as someone who can make changes.
"The response we're getting from the community is that they want new leadership in the Assessor's office," Johnson said.
But Johnson has no formal experience appraising property. Kern County Elections Divison Chief Karen Rhea said according to California government code 24002.5, the Assessor-Recorder is required to have a valid appraiser's certificate issued by the state Board of Equalization. If not, that person can serve for up to a year in the position if, within 30 days of taking office he acquires an appraiser's license.
Johnson said his leadership skills are what's needed to do the job well.
He believes the Assessor-Recorder's office is poorly run by retiring Assessor-Recorder Jim Fitch and wants to put the "taxpayers first." The office, Johnson said, needs to do a better job of explaining itself to major taxpayers in the oil, gas and agricultural industries.
He intends to implement regular meetings with industry taxpayers to explain the rules and listen, which, he believes, will lead to fewer appeals of tax assessments.
Lifquist is Johnson's opposite.
He has worked in the Assessor's office for 25 years, managed many of its functions and regularly handles assessment appeals, the legal process where taxpayers contest their property's assessed value.
But he is a political newbie.
Lifquist argues it's impossible for an outsider to parachute into the top job.
"This is a complicated office dealing with complicated issues," he said. "To an outsider it's just a black box."
He sells himself as a low-key problem solver who knows how to appraise property.
"I've always had a reputation of keeping my head down and getting the job done," he said.
With large amounts of money at stake, Lifquist said, appraisers for Assessor are under pressure to go easy on taxpayers and lower valuations.
"There is all this pressure on appraisers to do things incorrectly. Spotting that is something you get with experience," Lifquist said. "We have to assess property for what it's worth, not appease any one person."
Esquivias sells himself as the perfect hybrid of experienced candidate and innovative thinker -- and a better choice than both his opponents.
Like Johnson he sees a lot of things he'd change in the Assessor-Recorder's office.
Where Lifquist has advocated for a slow, steady changeover of department records to digital format, Esquivias wants to move fast.
"We need more (information technology) staff. We've got three people. We need double that," he said.
Esquivias would also like to eliminate an office position with high turnover because hires think they'll learn how to be appraisers but leave after realizing it is clerical work.
And he wants to develop a team dedicated to handling the high volume of property valuation challenges.
Currently, appraisers are sent into a legal hearing with little training on defending their work. Esquivias thinks the department needs to have experts handling those disputes.
Like Lifquist, he doesn't believe Johnson is capable of doing the work.
"Every property that we value is for the Assessor. His name is on it," Esquivias said. "As the Assessor -- as the top guy on the totem pole -- you have to know it. You have to know property tax law. You have to be able to appraise."
Johnson responded to the criticism saying the office follows law and procedure to determine the right appraisal of property value.
But talking to taxpayers, informing them and listening to their concerns doesn't mean appraisals are tailored to please taxpayers.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
There is another twist to this story. Two of the three candidates have two-decade-old criminal records.
Lifquist pleaded guilty in 1990 to a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, court records show.
Esquivias pleaded guilty in 1989 to two felony charges of possession of narcotics for sale.
Lifquist said it was a troubled time in his life and he turned himself around.
"I haven't drank in a little over 20 years," he said. "I'm a recovering alcoholic and a member of AA."
Esquivias, who grew up poor in farm labor camps in rural Kern County, was 19 when he was arrested for possession of cocaine for sale.
"Twenty-five years ago I got involved in drugs. I was arrested and went to prison," he said. "I'm not proud of that. But it's made me what I am today."
He credits his wife Camille with helping him turn his life onto a positive path. She drove him to Bakersfield College and demanded he get himself an education.
Nearly nine years after leaving prison, he said, he was granted a certificate of rehabilitation from the court.
Johnson's experience is likely to serve him well in the early showdown with Lifquist and Esquivias.
He is clearly able to raise money quickly, pulling in more than $17,000 in the first five days of his fundraising effort.
Lifquist and Esquivias both donated funds to their campaigns to jumpstart them.
But Lifquist has picked up some support for his campaign that could offset his lack of political experience: He has hired Republican powerbroker Mark Abernathy as his consultant.
Traditional campaign wisdom is that Johnson's high-profile name gives him an edge in the primary.
If that holds true and Johnson garners 50 percent of the ballots plus one vote, he will win outright.
If he's forced into a November runoff, his opponent would have time to raise money and improve his name recognition with voters.