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  • Sheriff used to do double-duty as County Assessor

    The Way We Were logo

    By Tom Prezelski
    Folks often ask, usually in the face of election year clutter, why certain offices are elected, or even why they exist at all. Usually, a little bit of digging turns up a historical reason for these, often the result of some sort of reform after serious problems emerged, and it becomes clear why these offices were, and are, still necessary. Such is the case with the office of County Assessor.

    Former county assessor SamaniegoAs the counties were established in the early years of Arizona Territory, the legislature created a slate of offices that seem familiar today, including a Board of Supervisors and a slate of row officers which included a Clerk, Recorder, Treasurer and Attorney. As anyone who grew up watching westerns knows, the most high-profile of these was the office of Sheriff, whose duties included not only law enforcement, but also the assessment and collection of taxes. Like other county offices, the Sheriff’s income came from what he collected, which in his case included not only fees but also a portion of the property taxes. During boom years, this cut could amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year at a time when a miner’s daily wage of four or five dollars was considered generous. It is little wonder that the Sheriff’s office was so highly coveted and fiercely contested.

    The most storied of Pima County’s sheriffs during that era was Republican Bob Paul, a larger-than-life figure who served three two-year terms starting in 1881. Though effective and popular, he was the target of attacks by the Arizona Star, whose reform-minded Democratic editor, Louis C. Hughes, charged Paul with what amounted to a conflict of interest in tax collections, particularly with regard to favoritism shown toward the Southern Pacific Railroad, the corporate boogeyman of the day. Though clearly motivated by more than a little partisanship, Hughes’ criticism had substance, and his calls to address the controversy by creating a separate office of Assessor resonated all over the Territory.

    Pima County representatives to the notorious Thirteenth Territorial Legislature of 1885 introduced a bill to create an office of County Assessor, which passed on the last day of the session. By this time, it had been amended and expanded to include other reforms called for by Hughes, including fixing salaries for all county officials, directing that fees collected be set aside to pay for the expenses of running the office, and providing for a stiff penalty of 10 years in prison for mismanaging public money. Property values would now be assessed by the County Assessor and taxes collected by the County Treasurer. Each would be paid a set amount of $1,500 and $3,000 a year, respectively. The Sheriff’s office remained lucrative, paying $7,500 a year plus reward money.

    Initially, the Board of Supervisors appointed Democrat Hiram S. Stevens, a local businessman who had already represented the Territory for two terms in Congress, to serve in a caretaker role as Assessor until the scheduled election. In November 1886, Democrat Mariano G. Samaniego (pictured third from left) was elected to the office by a comfortable margin. A native of Sonora, Samaniego was one of the most powerful local political figures of his time, having served in various offices at the city, county and territorial levels and “controlling the Mexican vote almost to a man.” It seems a little ironic that the first man elected to the office that Hughes had advocated for was someone that the Star editor had previously characterized as one of the “fat men” that stood in the way of reform. Nonetheless, Samaniego was universally praised for his competence and honesty in office. Samaniego served only one term, but remained active in politics, eventually helping organize the Alianza Hispano-Americana to champion the interests of the Mexican-American community.

    Continuing concerns about favoritism in valuations led the framers of the State Constitution to mandate that property be assessed at “full cash value.” Subsequent laws have further assured that the arbitrariness and preferentialism of earlier days is almost impossible. Though controversies do arise from time to time, the process has largely operated smoothly and the office of Assessor operates relatively quietly. Perhaps this is what the nineteenth century reformers intended.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West is a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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