Claremont passes on hiring assessor
But increases assessment oversight
By GLYNIS HART
CLAREMONT – At their Nov. 13 meeting Claremont's City Council moved to create a citizen-staffed board of assessors but delayed the hiring of an actual assessor.
City Manager Ryan McNutt asked the council to tweak the position to pay more, saying qualified candidates are not willing to work for what the city is offering. However, members of the council — as well as citizens in the audience — resisted changing the grade from 11 to 12, which would be a higher pay scale.
McNutt said not everyone who applied was qualified to do the work. “Since April I have been interviewing people. They have all declined or wanted vastly more than I'm even seeking [from council] for this position.
“It's not usually the plan to change the grade for a single person, but the assessor is a highly technical position. You need some fairly high-level skills to do the job,” said McNutt. “Most of the professionals in this field are retiring.”
Applicants are looking for an average salary from $92,000 to $120,000. The grade 11 pay scale has a midpoint of $53,000; the highest salary for a grade 11 is $83,000. Grade 12 goes up to $92,000.
The current assessor, Joe Lessard, took the position in April “with the understanding it would be a three-month process,” Lessard told the council. He is leaving at the end of November.
“It's a critical time right now,” said Lessard. “As soon as the department establishes a tax rate, the bills need to go out by December first so they can be paid in January.”
Lessard said he was willing to help out a few extra days if they hired a new person, but if there's no plan to do that he's firm on Nov. 30 as his end date.
Mayor Charlene Lovett said, “We're going through a revaluation process. How does that impact the assessor?”
“It increases the need,” said McNutt. The revaluation process assesses all city properties for fair market value.
McNutt had asked the council to change the assessor to a grade 12, which is a higher pay grade than an 11. Mayor Lovett objected that it would make the assessor, who answers to another department head (Nancy Merrill of planning and economic development) higher paid than other department heads.
“My plan was to hire this individual,” said McNutt, “then they come in and determine what they believe this office needs. Should it be a department? Remain a division of economic development and planning? The point was to get a qualified assessor in that office to determine what needs to be done.”
However, the council balked at raising the grade to 12, effectively sending McNutt back to the drawing board. The city uses an outside contractor for assessing, but McNutt said he doesn't believe that contractor has another qualified individual available. “I'm going to have to find another contracting agency.”
Lovett pointed out that the assessor has a large effect on city revenues, with nearly one million dollars in tax abatement applications over the past two years.
Councilman Nick Koloski said state law requires taxation to be fair “and we've done a piss-poor job at this. Obtaining a qualified applicant is very important. Raising the salary in no way slights the efforts of the DPW or any other union — we've lost a lot of money. Every year we keep getting our rear handed to us.”
Lessard said the whole point of the revaluation process is to make the taxes more fair. “If the revaluation is properly overseen it will solve the problem you're talking about. In two days a week, it's not possible. Kim and I can only do so much.”
While several people praised Marlene Jordan, who previously held the assessor position, McNutt pointed out that Jordan was not DRA (N.H. Department of Revenue Administration)-certified and was sometimes overwhelmed by the job.
The council decided on a motion for McNutt to look into raising the pay scale for grade 11, to be followed up with a comprehensive review of pay scales for all the grades.
Board of assessors
The city council voted on a second reading of an ordinance to create a board of assessment review, a citizen-staffed board that would advise the council on assessment issues. The idea was inspired by public outcry over a tax abatement granted to owners of the Topstone building.
In a previous meeting Lovett noted that four other New Hampshire cities — Lebanon, Keene, Berlin and Concord — use a board of assessors to review assessment appeals. In Claremont assessments and abatements are reviewed by the city manager and city assessor.
After some discussion the council decided to restrict the board to non-council members and people not already serving on another board. The board of assessment review will have three members, each serving a three-year term (term end dates will stagger, so only one position turns over per year) and one alternate. The city's legal counsel will review the language creating the position, and create an ordinance, which the council will then vote into law.