Penobscot County considering whether it should have an assessor to share with towns, cities

Posted March 29, 2014, at 6:15 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — With continued municipal budget cuts, a shortage of qualified people to replace retiring employees and a growing need to share services, Penobscot County is exploring whether to hire its own tax assessor to help area towns cities trying to tighten their belts.

Earlier this month, Penobscot County commissioners met with Bangor’s assessor, Ben Birch, and fellow assessor Lorna Thompson, to talk about the feasibility of hiring a county assessor to work with municipalities on a fee-for-service basis. The idea was first pitched to the county by Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow a year ago, when the city was facing funding reductions and looking for ways to save.

“The Commissioners believe this may be an opportunity to provide a service which could benefit municipalities they serve,” County Administrator Bill Collins said recently.

The county asked Birch and Thompson to come up with a few service models that might work.

Collaboration has already been key for many towns in the region. Birch, with Bangor’s approval, assists Veazie, Orrington and Hermon with their assessments. Last year, he did work for Brewer after its assessor announced her retirement. He looked at 22 applications for Brewer’s assessing position, but only three were fully qualified, he said.

“During this process, I spoke with Maine Revenue Service’s Property Tax Division, Dave Ledew, and he indicated that when they tried to fill several vacant positions, they had difficulty finding qualified personnel,” Birch said in a recent email.

The assessor shortage isn’t the only reason some communities like to share assessors.

Across the board, towns and cities have been struggling to make their budgets work and looked for ways to save without sacrificing services.

“[Collaboration] is necessitated by the fact that we’re in a land of dwindling resources,” Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard said during a recent interview. Lessard is among the town officials interested to see what the county might come up with in terms of assessing services.

She said Hampden spends about $100,000 per year on its full-time assessing position, between salary, benefits, training and other related costs, and that might be an area the town would like to cut back on. She said that’s not a reflection on the work of Hampden’s current assessor, but rather reflects a need for the town to look everywhere to cut costs without losing services.

Once the county decides whether to move forward and offer assessing, Lessard would bring that option to city councilors to gauge their interest in such a deal.

Birch said his department in Bangor is reimbursed on an hourly basis for its work with neighboring communities. That model could work for an arrangement through the county as well, or it could go with a per-parcel reimbursement rate, depending on the municipality’s needs.

Cumberland County, with a population of more than 280,000 — compare with Penobscot County’s 154,000 — recently moved forward with a similar arrangement after a trio of communities expressed interest in the service.

Gary James was hired to serve as the county’s assessor in October 2013. Yarmouth and Cumberland signed up for his services first, and Falmouth recently voted to take part in the services as well.

“There’s been an initiative by some of the town managers to regionalize assessing as far back as 2007,” James said, a move largely buoyed by sluggish budgets and and assessor shortage.

James said the cost to municipalities varies depending on size, number and valuation of properties. He estimates next year’s fiscal budget, with all three towns, to run a total of $325,000, split among the towns. In Cumberland County, a town should expect to spend 1-2 percent of its municipal budget, excluding school costs, on county assessing services, he said.

The county isn’t supposed to make any money through its assessment efforts, which are meant to be “self-sustaining,” James said.

Many Maine towns have entered partnerships with other towns or private assessment firms in order to cut costs.

New England is unique in how it sets up its assessment services. Across much of the country, assessments are handled by county or state governments, according to James, who used to work as a countywide assessor in South Carolina.

Penobscot County Commissioner Tom Davis said during a recent interview that the commission will take “quite some time” to investigate the potential of bringing on a regional assessor.

“My concern is that we can’t do it as cheap as these private assessors are doing it already,” Davis said, arguing that if the county finds that the private sector can serve municipalities for less, creating another government position should be avoided.

But the county has more research to do before it can compare potential costs.

“Before I get in on the ground floor, I want to make sure this isn’t a one-story building,” Davis said.

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