By Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer
When Presque Isle’s assessor retired two years ago, the initial search for her successor produced a handful of applicants – none qualified. A second round of advertising attracted just seven people.
Failing to find someone with experience and certification through the want ads, the city finally convinced a veteran independent assessing agent to join its staff full time, filling the six-month-long vacancy.
The story is much the same in Wilton, a town of 4,100 people in Franklin County. The community has tried unsuccessfully since September to find a qualified code enforcement officer.
The two cases reflect the challenges facing smaller municipalities seeking to find qualified assessors, CEOs and other specialized professionals. These communities often need someone only part time and cannot afford to pay prevailing wages of as much as $20 an hour.
To draw qualified candidates, however, they often must advertise extensively, offer more money and even boost the number of available hours.
“The difficulty that small municipalities have is they generally have part-time CEOs, and they offer no real benefits,” said Mark Doyon, town manager of Manchester, beside Augusta.
“The highest qualified people generally are running code enforcement departments for large municipalities,” he said. Large communities “can offer them more money, and they can offer the benefits.”
Last year, Manchester lost its code enforcement officer to Litchfield. The two towns had shared a part-time CEO, but when Litchfield offered him a 32-hour position with benefits, he took it.
In response, Doyon convinced selectmen to raise the CEO’s hours to three days each week, an increase of one day. Manchester, a growing community, is facing review later this year of three large subdivisions. The CEO will play a critical role in the approval process, requiring someone with experience.
So far, things have worked out. Last September, Doyon hired Gary Quintal, a retired state employee with code enforcement experience, for $15.50 per hour.
“We were lucky to be able to hire him at the amount of money we were willing to pay him,” Doyon said. “When I started talking about what the salary range was, I had one person say, `Good luck.’”
Presque Isle had no such luck when it sought to replace its longtime assessor after she retired in mid-2003. The city advertised for the position twice within six months. Each time, none of the applicants met the even the city’s minimum standards.
“There wasn’t anyone who had the education or certification to do the job,” said LaNiece Winslow, the city’s personnel director.
Needing to fill the job, the city approached Lona LaFrancis, a veteran self-employed assessor who performed property valuation updates for more than a dozen communities. After negotiations, LaFrancis agreed to work full time for Presque Isle at an annual salary of about $45,000.
Today, the town of Wilton faces a similar challenge. Town Manager Peter Nielsen has advertised twice for a CEO, but with no luck. He hopes to find a retired professional willing to work 20 hours per week for what the town can afford – about $11 an hour.
“It’s not an easy job to find someone who can do that on a part-time basis,” Nielsen said. “You can find people with some of the qualifications, but not others.”
Wilton shares an assessor with Mexico but has its own CEO. The job has been vacant since September, with the planning board chairman handling permit applications as needed. Code enforcement issues have been put aside, for now.
“We’ve had some junkyard complaints that are not being addressed,” Nielsen said.
The town manager continues to hold out hope of finding the right person. Still, he understands the reality of municipal recruitment. “A smaller community becomes a stepping stone to bigger things,” Nielsen said.
Personnel directors in Maine’s largest cities acknowledge drawing some of their employees from smaller places. They have little trouble filling vacancies, and people tend to stay awhile.
Last year, for instance, Portland had a vacancy for an appraiser in its seven-person assessing department. The successful candidate came from South Portland, just across the Casco Bay Bridge.
“Because our operation is bigger here, he sees more opportunity for promotion,” said Gloria Thomas, human resources director in Maine’s largest city.
In Bangor, Assistant City Manager Robert Farrar said he has no trouble finding qualified candidates for a variety of jobs, including assessing and code enforcement. Many employees gain experience in smaller towns and then apply to Bangor, drawn by good benefits and salaries often exceeding $40,000 per year.
“We’ve been lucky with where we are,” Farrar said, acknowledging Bangor’s role as the hub of eastern Maine. “Generally speaking, our retention rate is high, and our corresponding turnover rate is fairly low.”
Increasing demands on CEOs and assessors may partly explain the low number of qualified applicants for some positions.
Code enforcement and assessing require certification. Municipal professionals also must keep up with demanding state and federal regulations that can change annually. Keeping pace with surging commercial and residential development in some communities places additional burdens on municipal staffs.
“Our jobs are becoming very complicated and very complex. That makes it very difficult,” said Roger Timmons, a certified CEO who has worked in Windham for three decades, these days as Community Development Director. “Someone new coming in could get discouraged.”
When Timmons started in Windham in 1973, he worked alone. Today, he supervises seven people. State and federal rules have increased in recent years, challenging municipal employees to remain current on building safety codes, environmental regulations and local ordinances.
“It isn’t fun anymore,” said Timmons, a former building and excavation contractor. “It’s getting too complex for someone to keep up with. It’s mind boggling.”
The same could be said for municipal assessing. Mike Austin, a former city assessor in Bath, runs Maine Equalization Consultants. The firm serves 15 communities in southern and central Maine.
Demand for the services of assessing companies has surged in recent years. Communities, as a result, often must scramble for services. Smaller places are hit the hardest, with some waiting two to three years for revaluations.
“It really is becoming a competitive field” for municipalities, Austin said. “There are fewer people going through the certification process. We’re not sure why.”
Elizabeth Bowdoin, president of the Maine Association of Assessing Officers, agreed that fewer people are entering the field. Most likely, potential assessors are drawn into other professions with better pay and less stress.
Although most communities today seem to be able to fill vacancies, Bowdoin wonders what will happen down the road, when veteran assessors retire or leave the field.
“Who wants to be an assessor? It wasn’t my dream in the world,” said Bowdoin, who works for the town of Hermon. “It’s not the most pleasant job in the world. You have people upset with you, no matter what you do.” Fewer people are entering the field just as demand for professional assessing services is rising. That spells trouble for smaller municipalities seeking to find qualified people.
Judy Mathiau is a former municipal assessor who now serves as a liaison between municipalities and the Maine Revenue Service. She has noticed greater use of part-time professional assessing agents. In many towns, especially in southern and coastal Maine, soaring property values are placing greater pressure on municipalities to keep pace with changes in the real estate markets.
As a result, the days when small-town selectmen could handle the assessing job alone seem to be numbered.
Assessing “is a busier department than it used to be,” said Mathiau, a former assessor in Rockport and Camden. Hiring professionals “alleviates the stress and the pressure on the selectmen/assessors.”
With growth raising the demands on municipal staffs, communities increasingly are looking to share resources in their quest for qualified employees.
Last August, Richmond’s town manager, David Peppard, began meeting monthly with leaders of four nearby towns to discuss ways in which to save money by sharing costs.
In December, the group received its first opportunity when Richmond’s part-time code enforcement officer resigned. After discussions, Richmond and Dresden agreed to share the costs of a CEO for 32 hours weekly.
Each community will increase by four hours each week the amount of time it employs a CEO. Richmond will cover 20 hours of the officer’s time, and Dresden 12 hours. The towns are considering a starting pay range of $16.50 to $22 hourly.
One day, Peppard said, the towns may need to consider sharing the costs of a full-time CEO. Richmond alone has had four code enforcement officers in 10 years. “The bottom line is retention,” Peppard said.
Growth is likely to increase the demands on town services as development creeps north from Brunswick and Topsham, requiring more and more of the CEOs. Just a few years ago, Richmond issued 30 building permits per year. Today, that number has doubled.
“It’s obvious that (growth) is going to continue to escalate,” said Peppard, a former selectman who has managed Richmond for two years. “You really need someone in that position who can oversee the uniform application of the town’s ordinances.”
Growth – and turnover – are leading some communities in Androscoggin County to consider sharing resources. In December, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments sought a grant through the state Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Local and Regional Services, which the Legislature created last year with a $1 million appropriation.
The money, administered by the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, is designed to encourage cooperation among municipalities and intergovernmental organizations. AVCOG hopes to study how best to structure a regional code enforcement officer sharing program.
Planning Director Fergus Lea envisions a service whereby the agency would cover the salary and benefits of a full-time CEO serving participating communities. Those towns would reimburse AVCOG for their share of the personnel costs.
“It offers some degree of stability,” Lea said, adding that he hopes the program will attract a qualified employee willing to make a long-term commitment.
Five to six towns, including Poland, Minot and Wales, have expressed interest in the program. “When push comes to shove, we’ll see how many towns are wanting to sign up,” Lea said.
Some communities in Kennebec County are considering sharing the costs of an assessors’ agent.
In December, managers from Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop and Kennebec County met over breakfast with the head of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments. They agreed to seek a $10,000 grant through the municipal efficiency fund to explore possible models for regional delivery of assessing services.
Options could include housing a regional assessor in one community, placing the professional at the county level, running the program through KVCOG in Fairfield, or exploring some other mechanism. Communities would share the costs.
“I think the Legislature’s grant program is exactly what is necessary to move beyond where we are now,” said Kenneth Young, executive director of KVCOG. “I think it will produce a lot of very interesting models.”
In Cumberland County, some communities last year explored regional assessing but ultimately shot down the idea.
David Sawyer, the former assessor in Gorham, had approached his town manager about creating a regional assessing district. His manager, in turn, passed the idea along to colleagues in Westbrook and Windham.
Leaders of Windham and Gorham agreed to explore a possible sharing of assessing resources. Westbrook wanted additional time to consider its options – and since has signed on with South Portland for assessing services.
After some study, Gorham and Windham floated a proposal that fell short of creating a regional assessing district but called for considerable cost-sharing. The two towns would combine their assessing staffs under one roof, setting up in a former school building in Gorham, near the Windham line. Sawyer would serve as assessor for both towns, managing a staff of four employees.
Gorham would oversee the service, and Windham would share costs. Such an arrangement “lends itself to an economy of scale,” Sawyer said. “You’re putting everyone together into one office.”
The proposal, however, ultimately ran into trouble and was rejected by both communities last November. Problems with logistics, local issues and unresolved questions doomed the idea. What would happen, for instance, if Gorham leaders decided to cut the assessing budget? Would Windham have any say?
The details were never fully developed, Sawyer said. “Everybody made mistakes in the process,” he said. “Both towns learned from it.”
Still, he believes regional consolidation ultimately could save money.
“The best use of personnel would be in a combined office. You could assign the personnel to meet the demands of the office as the work ebbs and flows. That would be more efficient,” said Sawyer, who recently left Gorham to work full time as Windham’s assessor.
“I think it could work, but it would take some real motivation,” he said.