Assessors' Agent: The first step toward professionalizing and depoliticizing the process of assessing?
(from Maine Townsman, February 1994)
by Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor

There comes a time when a board of selectmen, especially if it is also serving as the board of assessors, recognizes that the job of assessing is more than "three men in a truck" can handle and begins to look at its options.

As one Certified Maine Assessor, Thomas Edwards, told the TOWNSMAN, "It takes wise people to admit they are looking at a field they know nothing about."

They can choose to get out of the business altogether and appoint a single assessor. Or, they can choose to stay in the business and hire an "assistant" or so-called " assessors' agent" to do the work for them.

If they choose to go with a single assessor, they give up the responsibility and the authority that comes with the territory. If they choose to go the route of the assessors' agent, they retain the responsibility and the authority, "keeping their fingers on the trigger," so to speak.

Given the fact that the hiring of assessors' agents is becoming a common practice for municipalities with elected boards of assessors, given the fact that there are no laws which specifically govern their activities, the TOWNSMAN decided to take a look at the current practice of employing assessors' agents and what people in the business have to say about it.

THEIR ROLE

As noted above, nowhere in the Maine statutes are "assessors' agents" mentioned directly. 36 MRSA, section 327 merely states that "Any municipal assessing unit (board of assessors) may employ a part-time, non-certified assessor or contract with a firm or organization that provides assessing services."

Until recently assessors' agents were not even noted in the Bureau of Taxation's manuals. But no more. They are now acknowledged by the Bureau in one of its recently revised manuals (Basic Course 2).

In it, the Bureau notes that the practice of hiring such agents to provide "technical assistance for the professional administration of the local property tax" has become "relatively common" and that by using the services provided by these "advisors," municipalities are able to "strike a balance between tradition (read home rule and local control) and practicality (read professionalism)."

The Bureau makes it clear, however, that despite the use of a professional agent, "All of the legal assessing power and responsibility continues to rest with the board of assessors."

And, that is how it should be, say some, pointing out that no amount of professionalism can counteract the board's intimate knowledge of a community. And besides, they argue an enlightened and active board can provide a needed check on the process.

But not all agree with this view. Tradition is nice, say some of the assessors interviewed for this article, but boards of assessors are elected and elected boards are "political animals" subject to the kinds of pressures that could keep a municipality from achieving its primary goal of equity.

Arguing the case for a single assessor, they argue that while the assessors' agent was there to improve the quality of the work and therefore the equity, what good was it if the board could overturn that work?

All agreed, however, that by hiring an assessors' agent, municipalities were taking the first step toward depoliticizing and professionalizing the function of assessing. And, they said it was about time, given the fact that Maine set assessing standards back in 1975, almost 20 years ago.

What follows is a look at the pratices of a few municipalities that employ assessors' agents, part-time and full-time, in-house and contracted as well as a few guidelines for boards that want to "keep their fingers on the trigger."

PRACTICE: SHARING, INHOUSE

The towns of New Gloucester and Casco share the services of one certified Maine assessor. One week he works for the town of New Gloucester as the assessors' agent; the next week he works for the town of Casco as the single assessor . . . alternating back and forth throughout the year. Together the two towns have a total of 4,750 parcels. New Gloucester has 2,450 parcels; Casco has 2,300 parcels.

Technically, he is an employee of Casco which pays his salary and benefits and which bills New Gloucester for its half share. He is paid a total of $27,500 (not including benefits).

David Morton Casco town manager, says at $13,750 per town plus benefits, it's a good price given the fact that the same amount would only buy them the contracted services of a part-time person who would be available only a few days a month.

"I have this person the equivalent of 25 weeks a year, as opposed to a few days a month,'' says Morton.

For New Gloucester, where the selectmen also serve as the board of assessors, the practice of sharing assessing with another town is not new. It had a similar arrangement with Gray. The person worked three days a week for Gray and two days for New Gloucester, until Gray decided it would benefit from full-time attention to its 3,800 parcels.

For Casco the past practice of hiring a contracted agent to work part-time with its board of selectmen/assessors wasn't working any more, according to Morton.

Casco had just gone through a particularly difficult revaluation. It had also had a major turnover on its board of selectmen. A previous board had training and had been actively involved in the assessing; the new board had no training or practical experience and wanted out of the job, responsibility and all.

And last but not least, they were finding that it was not only difficult to find a qualified part-timer; it was equally difficult to retain them.

Morton says he is not a particular advocate of hiring in-house; he points to the fact that 100 percent of his public works is contracted out. But he feels he is getting more bang for his bucks with the current in-house arrangement.

New Gloucester Town Manager Bill Cooper says with a municipal employee he feels he has more control over the work than if it were contracted out.

For towns considering a similar arrangement, Morton suggests they be geographically close and similar in demographics. Casco has a population of 3,000; New Gloucester has a population of about 4,000.

He also notes that with this arrangement it is critical to have a person in each office assigned to do the clerical work and deal with the day-to-day issues when the assessor is not in the office.

PRACTICE: CONTRACTING OUT, PART-TIME

It's not clear who the vast majority of assessors' agents are. John O'Donnell of O'Donnell Associates in Auburn, who currently contracts with 23 municipalities in Maine for assessing services, says he believes that most assessors' agents are part-time individuals who are employees of the town.

O'Donnell Associates is one of the 'guesstimated' dozen or so firms in the state that actively provide assessing services on a contractual basis to municipalities. Those firms range in size from one person to a half dozen persons. Some of those firms were contacted by the TOWNSMAN for this article to ascertain the scope and cost of their services.

Some say they charge by the hour ($25), some by the day ($300 to $350, depending on the state of the records), and some by the parcel ($7 to $9). Some, when asked, gave the following "rule of thumb" saying you should expect to pay one day's labor a week for 52 weeks a year to cover the cost of maintaining 1,000 parcels. Some say you can't talk in generalities because it all depends on what you want them to do.

Which leads one to the subject of contracts. Though they are contracted workers, some of those contacted for this article say they do not work with a contract because many towns do not know what they want done at the outset and thus there is a great need for flexibility in the working relationship. Others point out that the assessing functions are well-established so there is no need for a written contract.

As such there is no one typical arrangement. The range of services is wide from one day a year to solid half-time . . . from being the assessors' agent to being the sworn single assessor . . . from doing only the pickups to maintaining the valuation so as to reduce the need for an immediate revaluation . . . from doing only the field work to doing everything including sending out the tax bills.

Advantages/Disadvantages of Contracting Out

Those interviewed for this article say that among other things one of the advantages of contracting out the assessing work is the fact that they are "the objective outsider" bringing to the job a non-political, less personal, therefore more professional approach than a municipal appointed or elected board would have. One consultant described his role as agent as being an "impartial advocate of the facts."

Those interviewed also point out that they provide continuity, when part-time municipal employees come and go moving on up the career ladder to full-time assessing positions they are there year after year providing a critical historical perspective. O'Donnell Associates notes that it has been doing continuous assessing work as an assessors' agent for one of its larger municipalities for 16 years.

Advantages aside, all acknowledge that the oft-cited lack of daily office presence could be a problem in terms of response time. But then they, ask, how much presence is really needed and note that the majority of issues can be handled by in-house office personnel.

Two Towns that Contract Out:

North Yarmouth, which has a population of 2,429 and 1,300 parcels, contracts-out its assessing to O'Donnell Associates for $10,000, year. In return, it gets a very part time, single assessor to do all its work mainly during the month of March.

North Yarmouth didn't always have this arrangement. Three years ago it had its own board of assessors and the firm provided it with the services of an assessors' agent. Then all three of the assessors resigned and the selectmen took the opportunity to do away with the separate board of assessors. It went to a single assessor and created its own board of assessment review.

"We took the resigning board's comments to heart, when they told us the job had gotten more complicated than a volunteer, uncertified person should be doing," says North Yarmouth Administrative Assistant Scott Seaver.

Seaver acknowledges that the disadvantage of the current arrangement is that the person is not there on a daily basis to answer questions but he adds that the person they have hired is a Certified Maine Assessor and that the scheduling of work during the month of March to do the approximate 150 field visits is to their liking.

Lincolnville, which has a population of 1,809 and 2,000 parcels, also contracts out its assessing work to a private company. But unlike North Yarmouth, the person hired serves only as the assessors' agent.

For $19,000 a year, Hamlin Associates of Dover-Foxcroft serves the five-member board of select men, who also serve as the board of assessors, by maintaining valuation at 100 percent; the agent also is available two days a month at the town office.

According to Lincolnville Administrative Assistant Skip Day, one of the reasons the arrangement works so well is that the company providing the agent conducted the town's last revaluation.

"In hiring an agent, it helps if you start from a known point, from an equitable revaluation," says Day.

Lincolnville didn't always hire out its assessing. As recently as 1984, its board of selectmen/assessors were doing the work. Then it moved up a step, with a former selectmen taking on the job of assessors' agent. But, he was not a certified Maine assessor.

In 1987, the town contracted out the work to a certified Maine assessor. In 1989, it hired an in-house certified Maine assessor who worked for the town part-time. That person left after one and a half years, saying she needed more money, according to Day.

By this time the coastal boom was in full swing and the town's assessment ratio was down to 25 percent (70 percent is the minimum acceptable by the state). The town hired Hamlin Associates in 1991 to conduct a revaluation. Subsequently it hired the company to maintain the valuation at 100 percent.

At the same time the board hired Hamlin as its agent, it decided to appoint its own Board of Assessment Review, believing that its own appointed BAR rather than the elected county commissioners had a better handle on the local situation.

Day says one advantage to hiring out to a company that works in other coastal communities is that you benefit from their comprehensive perspective. And he notes that while the board of assessors had a stronger hand in the agent's work the first two years, it now has backed-out, focusing only on abatements and supplemental assessments.

PRACTICE, INHOUSE, FULL-TIME

Presque Isle, which has a population of approximately 10,000, currently employs a full-time, in-house assessors' agent to do the assessing work of its approximate 5,000 parcels at a salary of approximately $30,000.

Although appointed the "city assessor" by the manager every year, technically Marilyn Currie is the assessors' agent, responsible to the council-appointed board of assessors. Presque Isle does not have its own Board of Assessment Review but rather relies on the county commissioners for its local appeals process.

Currie says the board defers everything to her but the signing of the commitment forms and the abatements.

Currie notes that a large number of her colleagues (other assessors' agents) are finding their municipalities doing away with the board of assessors and turning to single assessors to do the job. She says it makes sense, saying the current system is inefficient and slows down the appeals process.

She thinks it is but a matter of time before Presque Isle appoints a single assessor and has its own Board of Assessment Review. Under the new charter adopted last November, Currie says a mechanism is now in place to make the change,. She says the switch to a single assessor has been recommended not only by the Board of Assessment Review but also by the municipal attorney and the charter commission.

FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME

Whether you hire your own or contract out, when is it time to go full-time? Some of those interviewed for this article say at 2,500 parcels, you are "teetering" on the point of full-time work. Others say when you reach 5,000 to 6,000 parcels you are ready.

But the truth of the matter, says Gray's full-time single assessor, Jim Thomas, is it all depends . . . on the nature of the community, the types of properties, the current activity (new construction, land splits, overall growth), and the quality of the work you are aiming for.

Whether you go full-time or not depends as much on quality as on quantity, says Thomas, who went from a three-day-a-week position in Gray to a five-day-a-week position recently and in doing so was able to complete an in-house revaluation of Gray's 3,800 parcels.

PRACTICING QUALITY CONTROL

The courts have made it clear, that even though a board of assessors may "rubber stamp" the work of their agent, all of the legal assessing power and responsibility continues to rest with the board of assessors.

In Frank vs. Skowhegan, (1974) the court said "we do not now believe that to delegate responsibility for measuring and pricing property, while retaining the ultimate authority to fix the assessment for tax purposes is an improper abdication of the assessors' statutory duties."

In Shawmut Inn v. Inhabitants of Town of Kennebunkport (1981), the court said "local assessors must keep themselves informed as to methods used by the professionals they hire and assessors must use their own knowledge of local conditions to check accuracy of the professional appraisers' recommendations."

That said, how can one who is not a certified Maine assessor, but whose ultimate duty is to equity, delegate the work so it is done responsibly?

Some boards say they have a hands-off relationship with their agents, that the job is clear-cut.

But some veteran assessors say there comes a time when things don't go well. Who is responsible in the end? It's not the agent, but the sworn assessor(s). So better institute what they call "Quality Control" at the outset. Everyone, the agent, the assessors and the taxpayers will benefit in the end, they say.

What follows is a composite of their suggestions for achieving and maintaining quality control over the assessing functions carried out by the agent:

Remember you can never delegate responsibility; you can only delegate work. Remember only assessors are sworn agents of the State. Only the assessors can sign the tax commitment. Only the assessors can grant abatements.

Take the responsibility of informing yourself as to your duties. Call the Bureau of Taxation (287-2011) and get their free training manuals. There are four. Become familiar with the material in them. Don't rely solely on your agent to train you.

Before you hire the agent, decide what you want done. Be clear up front. Do you want the agent to administer an existing system or do you want them to develop a new cost schedule to implement a revaluation? Or will you want the agent to recommend the direction of the work?

Make sure you hire the most qualified person. By hiring a certified Maine assessor, you at least know they have passed a very comprehensive exam, demonstrating a basic understanding of the law and proper technique. But remember, nothing substitutes for practical experience. If you hire a non-certified assessor, hire that assessor with the provision that they become certified.

Develop a job description that will carry out what you want to accomplish. Agree on the methodology to be used. Note the frequency of inspection. Is it 25 percent a year over a period of four years? Or is it only annual pickup work? How will you reimburse mileage? How many days will they be in the office? How frequently will they make progress reports and what will be included in them?

Check their work:

Look at the "ratio studies". The ratio studies show the relationship of the assessed values to the selling prices. It should be no lower than 70 percent.

Look at the "quality rating" of the assessments. It tells you how uniform and equitable your assessments are overall. It is an indicator of accuracy. It is nothing more than a number that reflects the range of assessed values as those assessed values relate to actual market value data derived from actual sales. It should be no higher than 20 and probably less than 15.

Undertake a random sampling of their work. Look at the data of 10 to 20 percent of the work. Is the agent grading like properties consistently? Is the data collected correct? Windshield surveys are not enough.

The author would like to acknowledge the following assessors whose thoughts helped to shape this article: Cindy Michaud, William Van Tuinen, Marilyn Currie, Thomas Edwards, David Ledew, John O'Donnell, Marilyn Rhodin, and Jim Phillips.

The Numbers of Agents

For those wondering, at this point, just how many towns have single assessors and how many boards have assessors agents, the author consulted two resources: The 1993 Municipal Officials Listing prepared by the Maine Bureau of Taxation and the Maine Municipal Association's 1993 Municipal Directory.

There was no single answer. The Bureau indicates 78 municipalities reporting reliance on a single assessor; the MMA directory reports 111 municipalities with a single assessor. Size of a municipality did not seem to matter. There were 18 municipalities with populations of 10,000 and over that employed single assessors. There were 14 municipalities with a population under 2,000 that employed single assessors.

When it comes to assessors' agents, the Bureau indicates 15 municipalities have assessors' agents; the MMA Directory indicates 20 have assessors' agents. But conversations with the companies that contract for work as assessors' agents indicate the number of municipalities currently employing such agents to be far greater, closer to 80?

It should be noted that a number of municipalities (approximately 45, according to the Bureau's listing) have elected boards of assessors that are separate from the board of selectmen in membership, while many have at least one selectman on their board. While this article did not look at their arrangements in-depth, one common practice appeared to be that of providing a part-time clerk/ assessors' assistant to do the paperwork, with the board retaining the responsibility of doing the actual assessing work.