Westport Supervisor Dan Connell and Elizabethtown Supervisor Margaret Bartley have been discussing their options as the three towns have been working together as a sole assessing municipality.
A plan to have a county-appointed assessor for three Essex County towns passed through committee May 20, but may face an uphill battle as it heads to the full board.
Members of the Finance Committee voted 5-2 to move a resolution to the Ways and Means Committee that would allow the towns of Westport, Elizabethtown and Willsboro to hire a county-appointed assessor. The three towns currently are part of a Coordinated Assistance Program.
Westport Supervisor Dan Connell explained that the CAP allows the three municipalities to be seen as one in the eyes of the state when it comes to the hiring of an assessor.
“It is a 10-year contract that the three towns signed with the state, and we are treated as one assessment unit,” Connell said.
The term of current assessor David Galarneau runs out in September, and Connell said that the three towns were looking at an alternative approach to fill the final four years of the CAP agreement.
”This is not new. It is happening around the state with a number of towns and counties,” Connell said, pointing to an agreement between the town of Champlain and Clinton County.
“We are looking at it in this world that we are in of tax caps and shared services that we can try for a year to see if it works,” Connell said. “We can put these three towns together and have enough parcels for this to make sense.”
Finance chairman Tom Scozzafava expressed reservations about the plan.
“The reason that this is a six-year term is so you can keep the politics out of the assessor,” Scozzafava said. “I am a little concerned about a county employee going out to do the assessment for these three towns and if the town boards are not happy with the assessments they will go to the real property director and say that they want them out.”
Connell said it was a matter of professionalism.
“We believe that the county has professionals on staff that can do the job better than anyone that we can find on the free market,” Connell said.
Elizabethtown Supervisor Margaret Bartley also explained while she felt the county-appointed assessor would be a good thing.
“It works very well for these three small towns,“ she said. “The county is already doing some of the work and is not getting paid for it. If we look to share services and that would open the gates to shared services grant funding that would all go directly to the county.”
Bartley also said that a familiarity with the person doing the work would be helpful.
“When we go out to bid, we do not know these people,” she said. “Everything that I am doing right now is an attempt to reduce taxpayers’ expenses. I know that I will have someone that is here on time because I know Charli wants her people to be there on time.”
The plan would pay the county $14 per acre and net just over $7,000 in revenue after paying the expenses associated with a raise in pay for the appointed county assessor and hiring a new position in the real property office.
“This is a money saver for the towns and a revenue stream for the county,” Bartley said. “We can come back here in a year and show you the numbers, and if it does not work, then we will not go back.”
Real Property Services Director Charli Lewis said that there are currently three members of her staff who are qualified to be assessors, but that if the plan were to go through, they would have to add staff.
“I feel that we are short-staffed now and if we were to do this we would have to promote and we would have to hire another,” Lewis said. “I look at it as two days a week in Willsboro, one in Westport and one in Elizabethtown and a fifth day floating between the towns that need it the most that day.”
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said he was against the idea of taking the assessment role out of the town.
“I have tremendous concerns that the state is going to stick their nose into the assessment business,” Canon said. “I would never support the county being in the assessment business.”
“If the towns that are involved in this feel like they are getting a good product and saving money, and the county is going to be getting money in return, then this is going to be a good thing for all sides,” North Hudson Supervisor Ronald Moore countered. “It’s been more and more difficult to get people to run for these positions, and I would feel more comfortable having someone from the county looking at the assessments than bringing in someone from Syracuse once a week to look at them.”
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said he was concerned that with a one-year contract, the county would be left holding the financial bag if the towns wanted out after the initial year. Connell said he would be willing to sign a contract for the full six-year term.
Scozzafava and Canon voted against the measure, while Randy Preston of Wilmington and Debra Malaney of Ticonderoga were absent from the committee meeting. Connell, Bartley, Politi, Moore and Bill Ferebee of Keene voted in favor.