Levey leaves legacy of strengthening county offices
Overwhelmed is not a word that appears to apply for someone like Barbara Levey.
Levey has simultaneously led four major Merced County departments with a steady hand for the past eight years, and this came after 26 years as a key player in the Assessor’s Office.
She’s enjoyed a stellar local government career for 34 years — not to mention that it was mostly all while raising a family and providing care for a sibling in need.
Early on this year, Levey knew she would be stepping down to focus on family life and retirement with her husband Arnie. It was going to be a busy and historic 2020 with the presidential election and with her separate role as the county’s Registrar of Voters. But a year ago, no one knew the COVID-19 pandemic was going to come and rock our world the way it did.
So it was hard to imagine Levey not looking a little bit overwhelmed as she sat for a recent Times interview during her last week in office.
It was only a few weeks before when she certified the biggest election in the history of Merced County.
Yet there she was with a characteristic calmness about her, a warm, welcoming smile, and a sharp intellect on how her departments work and what needs to be done to move them forward.
All things people have come to expect from Levey.
If anything was different in this moment, it was perhaps the reality that only a few days were left for everything — three decades of work, relationships and experiences — to sink in and reflect on one last time while in office.
There was a plaque from the Board of Supervisors honoring her years of service. Flowers were on a table. Balloons lined the frame of her office door. The smell of freshly baked cookies was in the air.
Yes, her loyal staff members had held more than one office get-together to bid her farewell.
They wanted to thank her, above all, for sticking up for them, and fighting for them, and putting them first in the operation of the departments.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing that people are seeing,” Levey told the Times, “or what you are doing that sticks. I told them, ‘If I’m not your advocate, who is going to be?’ I’ve taken on some fights for them — whether it was budget funding or taking on a new position — so they can properly serve the public because that’s why we are all here.”
Levey’s journey with the county begin in 1986. She had been a local Mercedian, born and raised in a family with plenty of deep roots in the county. A graduate of Merced College and Fresno State with a degree in Business Administration, she spent several years as a store manager for Tony Abbate’s McDonald’s franchise on Olive Avenue. She enjoyed the work, but with her young children starting school, she wanted more stable hours. That’s when she interviewed for an Auditor-Appraiser I position with the county, and was hired under Assessor Dave Cardella.
“I thought it was a great position and very interesting,” she said. “I was able to explore the county where I was from. You see every type of business and farming operation, inside and out. I was walking on top of feed mills while doing physical inspections. You name the business, I’ve seen it operating. And it’s all fascinating. You really learn a lot about the county and its people.”
An assessor determines the value of a property for local real estate taxation purposes. The figures assessors derive are used to calculate future property taxes. The Assessor’s Office has the responsibility for annually discovering and assessing all property within the county, and carrying out the rules and regulations imposed by property tax laws.
An enthusiastic Levey found herself working up through the ranks in no time. And back then, the staff pool was much larger than it is today. The county went through significant staff reductions in the early 1990s and then again in 2008 with the Great Recession. Actually, the organization still hasn’t recovered from the losses. The Assessor’s Office today is at 76 percent of the staffing level that existed before ’08.
In 1999, Levey was promoted to a supervisor position in the office, and then in 2003 she became the chief auditor and appraiser. By 2006, Levey was the assistant assessor and on her way to becoming the county assessor in 2012.
“It was something I wanted,” Levey said. “At that point, I had worked in virtually ever position in the Assessor’s Office and I had a good handle on things.”
But there was more that came with the leadership package. The Recorder’s Office — tasked with maintaining public records and documents — was merged with the Assessor’s Office in 2009. Those two offices are closely tied due to work related with real estate ownership. However, more merging of county offices under one director had continued at the County Administration Building, with the assessor taking on the Clerk’s and Elections office as well.
Levey was first appointed to finish off the prior term of Assessor Kent Christensen, and then she ran unopposed in 2014. She was officially known as the county’s Assessor-Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters. What residents my not realize, however, is that the assessor position is one of only three department leadership positions that are filled with an election by law. The other two include the sheriff and the district attorney. When Levey took over the top assessor spot she became the first woman to do so in the history of Merced County, which dates back to 1855.
“One of the things I have tried to work on for many years is getting more staff,” Levey said. “In the Assessor’s Office our work has only increased. Now with the higher housing starts, and the permits out there that we have to evaluate, our workload is bigger than ever. We get our mandatory work done, but it’s a struggle. Staff does overtime, management does a ton of overtime that’s unpaid. I’m very fortunate to have a very dedicated team, but there’s so much more work we could do if we had more staff. … One of the things I share with the Board of Supervisors during the budget process is that the Assessor’s Office is the foundation of creating the revenue that is used in their discretionary spending. The work that we do directly impacts 82 to 86 percent of those discretionary dollars in the General Fund budget — whether it’s for improving rural roads or boosting the Sheriff’s Department services.”
A lot of the work that impacts the public — work that Levey is extremely proud of — has happened behind the scenes in the Recorder and Clerk offices. The Recorder’s Office has located and inventoried all the historic records in the county’s possession, and has started a painstaking process to restore, protect and digitally image those documents. Many of these well-used documents are fragile and old, dating back to the 1850s. The county hired a firm that specializes in this type of restoration, and the documents are put into large, bound books and stored in temperature controlled conditions. The digital imagery of the documents makes them easily available for people to view when they are researching things like water rights, property rights or ancestry.
The work is ongoing and being conducted under various stages, but work under Levey’s leadership reflects the county’s concern for the protection of its history and making documents accessible to the public, whether in person at the office or through an online portal.
“It’s fascinating work,” Levey said. “One of the first documents I looked at when we redid some of those oldest books was a deed to the property where original County Courthouse was located in Snelling. The owner was deeding the property to the county for $1 with the promise that the county build the courthouse and its administration building on the site.”
Over time, Levey also discovered the names of distant family members who also served the county, including a great aunt who was an assistant recorder “back in the day,” as well as a great uncle who was a longtime county recorder.
In another advancement, more than half of the documents entering the Recorder’s Office are coming in now electronically via online portals with government oversight, and that’s been a tremendous help not only for the office itself, but for companies in the private sector such as title firms, and other county departments, such as the Office of the Tax Collector, that need to submit documents.
A new county contract with the firm ParcelQuest is now making more property data available online and through email for residents who previously would have to drive to the county office or wait for a letter in the mail.
Online services have also made it easier to request and receive birth, death and marriage certification, as well as fictitious business name statements and environmental impact reports.
All of this technology, much of it in the works before 2020, became even more crucial when the pandemic hit last March.
Unfortunately, the county is not conducting marriages right now, but Levey was instrumental in moving the “marriage room” out of a basement floor spot in the Administration Building and into a more appropriate and dignified location on the main floor. “That’s been huge,” she said. “It’s a big life moment for couples, and the move was very well received.”
Passport services performed by the county were also renewed under Levey and brought up to the main floor.
But perhaps the most significant office that was elevated with Levey’s support was the Elections Office. That too was stuck at the basement level for many years.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do with Elections is to help people realize that the work isn’t just on Election Day. It’s year round. There is a lot of work that goes into doing an election. And it’s very important work. This is also a very publicly visited office. Having visitors go to the basement always seemed a little odd to me.
“We have tried to be transparent always with what we are doing with our services, and hopefully educate the public more in what we are doing, and how elections are run,” she said.
Levey was ahead of the curve in recent years, bringing on a whole new line of equipment when the voting machines of dozens of counties were decertified by the State of California. She recognized lawmaking trends that were moving counties to all-mail elections, and she made sure Merced County was on the vanguard of that process with various test rollouts. The Elections Office increased online supportive information, online candidate filing, and online campaign finance reporting tools. The Elections website was overhauled and online Election Night Reporting added more features that were easy to view and understand.
All of these improvements (and there were more) put Merced County in a much better position for the historic 2020 election process that included a Primary three months earlier than in previous years — in March — due to a statewide change. And of course, the Elections Office was extremely lucky that it did not get caught flat-footed when the covid pandemic hit.
“When I first started with Elections, I told the staff that I’m committed to being here, learning the field, supporting you, and together we are going to grow. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was a lot of work. It was a huge learning curve. … And we tried to improve most everything.”
The process included new training on the laws and regulations for staff members and volunteers. Public engagement and transparency achievements included the creation of the Language Accessibility Advisory Committee and the Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee.
There was no down time in 2020 for Levey or her staff. The Assessor’s Office was running full bore as always at the start of the year, and the primary was in March, and then BOOM, a pandemic.
“We had done some Voting Assistance Center tests in previous elections and we learned a lot about how we provide services and how we train our staff. … And then all of a sudden we are told it’s going to be an all-mail election and we have to have these Voting Assistance Centers. I felt very fortunate we had done some of it before. I felt we had a better step on the ladder than some of my counterparts in other areas of the state. …
“We had to ramp it up with far more centers because we knew it was going to get a lot more busier. We knew people were going to want that in-person voting experience on Election Day. It took a lot of time and energy. But we were really pleasantly surprised. The general public, I think, was understanding of it for the most part. We didn’t get a ton of complaints like you might anticipate. People standing in a socially distanced line seemed to be in a good mood for the most part. A lot of people were dropping off ballots while others were registering to vote on that last day. It was a big change for our public, but I really don’t think we could have asked for it to go better.”
Levey credits community partners for the election success. The League of Women Voters helped get the word out on the new processes through constant social media messaging. There was also highly visible messaging through the Merced Theatre, along highways and through the radio airwaves. The student Leo Club at Buhach Colony High School volunteered to manually unfold ballots at the Elections Warehouse. “Unfolding 100,000 ballots is a huge endeavor,” Levey said. “The students came and worked two shifts.”
The election machines that Levey purchased came through too.
“I’m very glad the Board of Supervisors allowed me to make the determination to go with Election Systems and Software. They had been our previous vendor for about a dozen years. … It performed well for us. We did have to perform a recount for the Los Banos mayor race where there was a 32 vote difference between the two candidates out of 13,613 votes cast. We did three days of that. Ten percent of the votes cast were manually recounted. And there was no change. … In the end, it just demonstrated the accuracy. You hate to go into a recount when you are wrapping everything up. But it ended up being a valuable experience for the staff.
Despite having four major titles in Merced County government, and being a key player for so many years behind the scenes, Barbara Levey has not been in the spotlight all that much. Instead, she has enjoyed being a mover and shaker from the inside out.
Even when the Board of Supervisors recognized her earlier this month during a meeting, she appeared a little nervous accepting the praise and speaking about her time in office.
She reiterated her thoughts with the Times during our interview.
“I hope that I’ve left my staff, and all of the offices in a better position to the job they need to do. It’s not pretty all the time, or easy. I hope that I left things better for the public that we serve. … I hope that we have moved the ball forward.”
Since this interview, Matt May, who has just under 20 years with the county, has taken over the county’s assessor position. Levey said, “The county and the public will be well served by Matt. I appointed him to the assistant assessor position and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to do the job. Last year, a lot of my time was spent on elections, and he kept the Assessor’s Office going.”
Levey now joins her husband Arnie in retirement. They plan to stay in Mercedand focus on family. They have a son, Mel, who is a West Point graduate and Merced resident working on investment opportunities. They also have a daughter, Sarah, who works back east with a major defense contractor. And she has brought her parents a new granddaughter for them to visit.
As the supervisors unanimously agreed: Well done Barbara. And good luck in your future endeavors.