The Napa County Grand Jury accuses long-time Assessor John Tuteur with making agricultural land assessment decisions that are sloppy at best and self-serving at worst, but either way possibly costing the county tax revenue.
“Tuteur should be removed as assessor of Napa County” is a refrain at the end of four counts in the document filed in Napa County Superior Court.
The grand jury accuses Tuteur of “willful or corrupt misconduct” in office. Misconduct can include any willful, wrongful activity regardless of criminal intention, the document said.
Tuteur is to appear in court on April 24 to answer the accusations. The state Attorney General’s Office filed the court document on the grand jury’s behalf.
On Wednesday, Tuteur said he won’t respond to the details of the four counts yet, but will put on a vigorous defense in court. His reputation for integrity and 40 years of public service will serve him in good stead, he said.
“An accusation is just that,” Tuteur said. “It has not been shown to be accurate.”
The first count involves Williamson Act contracts between landowners and the county. The state Williamson Act, formally known as the California Land Preservation Act of 1965, seeks to preserve farmland from urban development by offering the owners property tax reductions.
In return, participating owners must keep their land in agriculture for 10 years, with the contract automatically renewing each year for an additional year unless the owner gives a non-renewal notice. Napa County as of December had 680 contracts covering 76,671 acres.
The court document makes it clear that correct application of the program is important for Napa County, schools and other public agencies to receive their fair share of property tax money. Owners of these high-value agricultural properties pay a total of about $6.3 million less than they would without Williamson Act contracts, it said.
In order to calculate the value of a Williamson Act property, Tuteur must request agricultural and various income-and-expense information from the property owner. A 2010 audit by the California Department of Conservation found 50 percent to 60 percent of the questionnaires weren’t being returned and those returned weren’t consistently reviewed, the court document said. Tuteur agreed to make changes.
But in 2016, 80 percent of vineyard owners didn’t return Tuteur’s questionnaires or returned incomplete questionnaires and 40 percent of grazing land owners didn’t return questionnaires. Tuteur failed to force compliance or to tell the county Planning Department, Board of Supervisors or District Attorney of the situation, the document said.
Another count involves Williamson Act contracts for farmland outside of the county’s agricultural preserve zoning district. Tuteur has failed to determine the actual value of these lands based on up-to-date grazing income, but has instead assessed them using a minimum-value formula adopted by the county in 1969 and never revised, the documents said.
Tuteur has a conflict of interest, given that if the minimum values under that 1969 formula should be raised, his own property taxes for his ranch would rise, the document said.
Another count involves the state’s decision during the Great Recession to reduce the backfill money it provided to counties who lost property tax revenue because of Williamson Act contracts. A 2011 Napa County report said the county general fund lost $1 million because of Williamson Act contracts and that the state backfilled about $90,000 annually.
The state under Senate Bill 863 allowed counties to shorten Williamson Act contracts from 10-year rolling terms to nine-year rolling terms to make up for the backfill money cut. This would in effect increase the taxes paid by contract holders by 10 percent, bringing $543,000 to the county, the court document said.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors decided not to go this route. Tuteur, even though he acknowledged he had a conflict of interest because of his own Williamson Act tax savings, illegally used his official position to influence the decision, the document said.
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A video of this Jan. 25, 2011 meeting exists. Tuteur told the Board of Supervisors that he had Williamson Act contracts in Napa and Solano counties and that he spoke against SB 863 as a landowner before the Solano County Board of Supervisors.
“The program would actually be a windfall for you if you adopt it,” Tuteur told Napa County supervisors.
But that would be done by threatening Williamson Act landowners with nonrenewal to convince them to agree to the 10-percent charge, he said.
“I don’t think it’s worth the risk of for both litigation and what I think would be – I don’t want to use too strong a word – a breach of confidence with your Williamson Act holders,” he told supervisors.
Since 2011, the state passed further legislation involving the shortening of Williamson Act contracts. Tuteur failed each year since then to advise the Board of Supervisors to consider this option. The amount of tax revenue foregone by the county exceeds $3 million, the document said.
The final count is related to a civil charge the county grand jury filed with the Napa County Superior Court clerk on March 8. It involved whether the Tuteur family owes $20,000 in back property taxes on land that it leases out for a cellular tower.
The latest filing gives more details about that accusation. Around 2008, Tuteur performed an assessment on the income for the cell tower lease. That was a conflict of interest, the document said.
He made an error that resulted in his property tax assessment failing to include all of the lease income. His employees discovered the error in 2016. But Tuteur failed to pay the back taxes for 2008 through 2015, the document said. It called the act “willful misconduct.”
Seven people testified before the grand jury. Five are from Tuteur’s office, one from the county planning office and one was Tuteur, the document said.
County Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht said on Wednesday that he wants the Board to have a presentation on the Williamson Act, though not on the grand jury charges against Tuteur.
In some counties, the difference between a land’s agricultural value and its market value with development potential is large, Wagenknecht said. But the difference is less in Napa County, he said.
“In Napa, the ag lands are the highest and best use of the property,” Wagenknecht said.
In Napa County, the assessor-county clerk-recorder positions are combined as a single elected office. Wagenknecht said the county has looked at breaking up the offices several times and he would consider doing so again.
“John has a remarkable set of skills when you look at his function,” Wagenknecht said. “We could find people who could do the assessor function, but it’s hard to find people who can do all of those things.”
Tuteur is running unopposed for reelection as assessor-recorder-county clerk on the June 5 ballot. He is also the county registrar of voters.
An earlier version of this story contained erroneous information about the registrar of voters position.