2015-04-03 / Front Page

Cape may share tax assessor

By Duke Harrington and Michael Kelley
Staff Writers

Matthew Sturgis Matthew Sturgis CAPE ELIZABETH — Scarborough’s loss could be Cape Elizabeth’s gain as town managers from the two towns have reached an agreement to share an assessor.

Scarborough lost its assessor when William Healey resigned in February after 18 months on the job to take a position in Lewiston, where he lives.

Instead of advertising for his town’s third assessor in two years, Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall began to cast about for alternatives, both as a means to save money and because of a relative shortage of quality assessing agents in Maine.

“In the assessing field, there is great demand for service and a very small supply of assessors,” he said in a March 31 interview.

When Scarborough hired Healey in May 2013 to replace Paul Lesperance, who retired two months earlier after 29 years on the job, officials received just nine resumes, not all of which were from fully certified applicants.

“I was surprised and, frankly, a little disappointed at the low number of applications,” Hall said at the time. “Although, you’ve got to appreciate, this is a pretty specialized field and our tax base is sophisticated enough that you need really deep experience.”

The phenomenon is not unique to southern Maine. Last year, Brewer reportedly drew just three qualified resumes from among 22 applicants to replace its retiring assessor.

The solution that presented itself to Hall came out of his experience in Pennsylvania, where he worked before coming to Maine in 1999 to assume city manager duties in Rockland. In the Keystone State, all assessing is done on the county level, and Hall felt sharing such services would work here as well. In fact, it was hiring Healey that helped get the regionalization ball rolling in Maine.

Before taking the job in Scarborough, Healey had been working as assessor for Yarmouth, North Yarmouth and Cumberland. The void left by his departure prompted Cumberland County commissioners to hire Gary James as county assessor in October 2013 and lend him out to Yarmouth and Cumberland. Falmouth subsequently signed up for the service in 2014. Hall said he first looked to contracting with the county as well, before turning to Cape.

He first approached Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovern on March 17 to propose sharing Cape’s assessor, Matthew Sturgis. From there, events moved rapidly. Hall, McGovern and Sturgis met with Scarborough’s human resources director, Jaclyn Mandrake, on March 19 to continue discussions. Sturgis then met with Scarborough’s deputy assessor, Susan Russo on March 20. By month’s end, a deal was in place.

As proposed, Scarborough will pay Cape $4,411.58 per month to get Sturgis’ services two days per week. The one-year contract, which covers the cost of Sturgis’ benefits as well as his salary, would net Cape about $34,000. Scarborough, meanwhile, would save about $50,000, given that it was paying Healey $84,364 in base salary alone.

Sturgis would remain on the books as an employee of the town of Cape Elizabeth, contracted out to Scarborough for 40 percent of his time. Russo would stay on as Scarborough’s deputy assessor, where the full-time assessor’s head would be eliminated.

The Cape Elizabeth Town Council is scheduled to vote at its April 6 meeting on whether to accept the proposal. Assuming the answer is yes, Scarborough’s Town Council will follow suit with a vote of its own on April 15. In Maine, the assessor is the only position other than town manager hired directly by a town’s municipal officers. All other employees are hired by and answerable to the manager. The assessor, on the other hand, reports directly to the town council.

Sturgis is not without experience in that regard. He is a resident of Gray, where he has served on the town council since 2008 and currently is chairman. A certified property appraiser with his own company, Sturgis Appraisals, Sturgis has worked as Cape Elizabeth’s tax assessor since February 2001. He formerly lived in New Gloucester, where he also was chairman of the board of selectmen. Sturgis is state representative, education chairman, and treasurer for the Maine Chapter of the International Association of Assessing Officers. He also is chairman of the Maine chapter of the American Lung Association.

If both the Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough town councils agree to share Sturgis, he would become responsible for the second-highest valuation charge in the state. Cape has 4,502 real estate and personal property accounts, while Scarborough has 11,536, for a combined state valuation of $5.4 billion — second only to Portland at $7.7 billion.

There is, of course, no guarantee town councilors will go for the collaborative concept.

“Their council has had a longtime approach for us entering into regional collaborations, and they always prefer models in which we deal with individual communities,” McGovern said in a March 31 interview, noting the town’s shared emergency dispatch services with Portland.

“However, there is concern that this agreement may draw away from some of his (Sturgis’) activities for us,” McGovern said. “That’s because he’s someone who supports things in our organization other than assessing. For example, today he was staffing the senior citizens advisory committee.”

However, McGovern noted that Cape Elizabeth Town Hall has two staffers shared by himself, Sturgis and Town Planner Maureen O’Meara, who could be pressed into service to pick up some of the slack.

Hall has acknowledged that customer service in Scarborough’s assessing department may evolve under the new arrangement. He said throughout the years residents have stopped by the assessing office unannounced to speak about concerns. Residents may have to rely more on appointments under the new partnership.

“There will definitely be some differences in how we do things, but the quality of assessing won’t be lost,” Hall said. “We may need to plug some gaps, but I think we will have adequate coverage.”

This is the second recent example of Scarborough regionalizing municipal services with neighboring communities. Last year, the town reached an agreement to handle Old Orchard Beach’s emergency dispatch calls. The Scarborough Public Safety Center began fielding calls for both communities in early February.

While shared assessors is a growing trend — Penobscot County has recently considered following Cumberland County’s example — Hall has hinted the local agreement, if approved, may not be a permanent fix. Eventually, a new crop of trained tax assessors should rise up to replace the wave now approaching retirement age.

“The landscape of assessing will change with retirements over the next three to five years. This was an opportunity for us to transition,” he said.

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