There's Something About Carmen

 Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu before and after digitizing 150,000 paper files to bring her office into the 21st Century.

Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu before and after digitizing 150,000 paper files to bring her office into the 21st Century.

By Joel P. Engardio

Shrugs abound when asking people on the street what they know about the Office of Assessor-Recorder at City Hall. Someone joked the title is obscure enough for its occupant to be the “Designated Survivor” of local government – like Kiefer Sutherland on the hit TV show.

Yet Carmen Chu is poised to become the assessor-recorder everyone knows and celebrates.

Chu’s fiscal acumen will help us survive President Trump’s retribution if he withholds a billion dollars in federal funding because San Francisco defied his executive order against sanctuary cities.

Charged with valuing San Francisco’s 208,496 properties, Chu’s office generates more than $2.6 billion in annual property tax revenue for city services. She collected $274 million in transfer taxes alone last year, which can pay for a lot of what Trump threatens to take away.

“I am committed to protecting the rights of our immigrant families, women, LGBT communities and the 90,000 San Franciscans who receive Obamacare,” Chu said. “The City is already estimating a $400 million deficit over the next two years, which doesn’t include what we might lose from a Trump administration. This means every penny counts.”

It would be easier for San Francisco to defy Trump, stay true to our values and endure a loss of federal dollars if we weren’t also facing a deficit of our own making.

We could have used recent boom years to save more money and shrink City Hall through innovation and efficiency. Instead, we let the city budget double the past decade to $9.6 billion, we increased the number of city employees to 30,000 (one for every 28 residents) and we didn’t adequately plan for unfunded healthcare liabilities that are ballooning out of control.

Now we will be forced to cut the budget. But Chu is doing everything in her power to hold the largest taxpayers accountable so those cuts aren’t as painful.

For example, she added $2.36 billion in assessed value to the property tax roll by doubling efforts to keep up with new construction. She recovered $11.6 million in underpaid transfer tax and penalties last year by creating an audit program for high value properties. She even increased the assessment for AT&T Park to collect an additional $5.5 million.

“We’re working smarter where we can and it’s adding up in a real way,” Chu said. “Maybe groups like AT&T Park don’t like paying more but its fair.”

Chu discovered AT&T was still enjoying lower taxes from a settlement agreement that had expired in 2011.

For more than a decade, Chu has been a voice of fiscal responsibility in a city that loves to spend beyond its means. She started as a budget analyst for Mayor Gavin Newsom. Then she chaired the budget and finance committee as a member of the Board of Supervisors. She has been assessor-recorder since 2013, generating billions of dollars of revenue and managing more than 170 employees.

Chu’s work ethic was formed as the daughter of immigrant parents who didn’t speak English. The family ran a Chinese restaurant and Chu rolled egg rolls, washed dishes and waited on tables.

“It was drilled into me as a kid that it didn’t matter who you were – everyone had to pull together to get the work done,” said Chu, 39, who lives with her firefighter husband and rescue dog near Stern Grove. “It’s not enough to just want things to happen. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and keep at it.”

Consider the hundreds of thousands of original, paper files she inherited as assessor-recorder. They represented all of San Francisco’s properties and filled a giant room -- one broken water pipe away from being lost forever.

Today, the file room is empty. Everything is scanned, digitized and searchable. Now Chu is working on replacing an ancient computer system from the 1980s to fully bring her office into the 21st Century.

Chu needs modern computing power so all the information she has scanned can help solve San Francisco’s housing crisis by telling us where there is room to grow.

“I want to harness the power of our data to show how neighborhoods have changed and understand the opportunities,” Chu said. “Data won’t eliminate the conversation of what should be built and where, but we need good data to inform our decisions.”

Chu is up for re-election in 2018. But what good is all the new revenue Chu generates as assessor if City Hall continues to squander it with bloated budgets and inefficient operations? To fix that, Chu would have to run for mayor in 2019.

“I’ve heard the rumors from Willie Brown, too,” Chu said with a laugh. “I’m very thankful for the community members who’ve been encouraging me to run for mayor. But I still have a lot of work to do here.”

Let’s hope San Francisco benefits a long time from Chu’s wisdom to diagnose a problem, her determination to solve it and her competence to achieve results.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner February 12, 2017