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Island County assessor faces foe from his own staff in November election

It’s been a tough couple of months for Island County Assessor Dave Mattens.

Two separate errors in levy rates came to light after tax bills were sent out. It turned out that a levy analyst in the assessor’s office was responsible for both errors. The county treasurer publicly criticized Mattens, a Democrat, over the snafus.

In the midst of this, a member of Mattens’ staff announced that she is running against him in the fall election. Mary Wilson Engle, a Republican candidate, is the senior residential appraiser and a 16-year employee who’s worked under three assessors. She came out swinging.

“There’s a need for change in the office,” Engle said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lack of leadership and a lack of teamwork.”

Mattens isn’t afraid to strike back or to tout his accomplishments as an assessor still in his first term. He said he kept his campaign promise to make the state’s deadline for mailing change of value notices, which had been months behind schedule. He significantly reduced the backlog of segregations, which are changes in parcel configuration. The state lists Island County’s assessments as the second most accurate in the state, when comparing assessments to actual sales prices.

“I would hate to see this office fall apart right now. It’s so fragile with the budget cuts and the staff cuts,” he said. “They need someone with sound management experience.”

Engle stresses her status as an accredited appraiser, which she said will be invaluable at a time when the office is running on a skeleton staff. Unlike Mattens, she said she would be able to train junior appraisers, act as a mentor and even do appraisal work in a pinch.

“Not having a department head who’s able to bear any of the workload really makes it difficult,” said Jason Joiner, Engle’s campaign manager.

Mattens said that’s nonsense. He claims he has more advanced training than most of his appraisers, including Engle. He’s passed four courses and a workshop with the International Association of Assessing Officers.

“Mary has not been able to pass the 102 course. She failed twice,” he said of the second-level course. “It kind of concerns me ... I haven’t scored under a 90 percentile and I took all the courses over three years, not 16.”

Mattens said he could be a certified appraiser if he wanted, but his job is about managing the office. He said he has a great deal of management experience as a commissioned officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 18 years and as the assessor. He sees Engle’s lack of management experience as a problem.

“She’s had ample opportunity to advance herself over 16 years, but she’s still just an appraiser,” he said.

Yet Engle has strong ideas about how the office should be run. She said she would be a hands-on leader who will “shadow” junior appraisers in the field. She will emphasize teamwork, mentoring and cross-training so that the staff members are more flexible in their roles. Without cross training, she said key staff members have no backup, which could lead to an emergency if one of them leaves the office.

Engle noted that Island County property owners have seen their assessments fluctuate significantly, which she plans to prevent by improving training and mentoring in the office.

Engle blamed the recent problems with levy errors on Mattens’ decision to prioritize timeliness above all else.

“Meeting deadlines does not always mean accuracy, and that’s my concern,” she said, adding that she could work side-by-side with staff to ensure both accuracy and timeliness.

Still, Engle said she didn’t jump into the election because of the levy errors, but has been exploring the possibility for the last year and a half. Bipartisanship is important to her. She spoke to a lot of people in the community from all different parties. Her campaign committee includes two Democrats, two Republicans and an Independent.

Engle grew up in Coupeville and was a 1987 graduate of Oak Harbor High School. She married long-time Coupeville farmer Bob Engle, who’s a member of the pioneering family of Central Whidbey. The couple is committed to preserving the working agricultural landscape of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. They have two children and also manage to run a number of small businesses.

To learn more about Engle, visit www.outstandinginherfield.com.

In contrast, Mattens has an extensive background in information technology and science. He has a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering from Michigan Technological University. He has a long and varied work history, from commanding a NOAA Corps research vessel to teaching a college course on computing. Mattens and his wife Diane moved to Freeland in 1987. They have three teenage children.

Mattens said he expects “the lion’s share” of his staff to support him in the election.

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