2016-01-01 / Front Page

Double assessment

Husband and wife assessing team retire
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer, pictured with her husband David, who was the assessor in Windham, has retired after 30 years with the city, including 28 as its lead assessor. (Courtesy photo) South Portland Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer, pictured with her husband David, who was the assessor in Windham, has retired after 30 years with the city, including 28 as its lead assessor. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND —Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer has a confession. On her first day of work in an assessing office, she had no idea what a tax assessor actually did.

“I literally had no clue,” he said with a laugh. “I had never even heard of the job before.”

Sawyer was in her 20s and living in Newport when she got a job through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a then-new federal jobs program that would pay municipalities to train people in various jobs. The program was extended three times and Sawyer ended up working in Newport for about a year, making a momentous discovery along the way.

“I loved it,” she said. “From the day that I started I just loved the profession. It just was so varied. There’s something different to deal with every day. I’m not stuck in an office. I get to deal with people and try to educate them. From the minute I started I just loved the job, learning mapping skills and measuring and learning about houses – I was like, ‘you’re kidding, you’re going to pay me to do this?’”

Sawyer, now 57, ended up earning an degree in property tax assessment at what is now Central Maine Community College in 1982 and interned with a property tax assessment firm. She worked on South Portland’s citywide reassessment as a contract employee in 1983, for a job as deputy assessor in 1986, and took over as lead assessor in 1988.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Sawyer has called it a career. Her official last day is Jan. 1, but her last day in the office was Dec. 18. Her retirement also is a loss for Westbrook. For the past decade, South Portland has handled all of that city’s tax assessing work.

“I’m probably most proud of that accomplishment and making that whole thing work,” Sawyer said. “Just an example of how well it’s gone is just the fact that so few people realize that we do it.”

Another town is also out an assessor. Retiring along with Sawyer is her husband David, 65, who was assessor in Windham.

“It’s been a long, long time and we want to do some other things. That’s really the reason (for retiring),” Sawyer said. “It is hard to imagine leaving after all these years, but we both just want to slow down a little bit, travel some,and see more of the grandkids.”

How three large municipalities will replace the Sawyers remains to be seen. In recent years, many towns in southern Maine have found assessors a hard position to replace. Scarborough had such a hard job finding a qualified candidate that it teamed with Cape Elizabeth to hire a joint assessor.

“It does seem to be a kind of graying profession,” Sawyer said. “There aren’t a lot of people coming up through the ranks. I don’t know why nobody wants to be a tax assessor, but they don’t.

“Some people seem to think it’s a crummy job. I tell people I’m a tax assessor and you can almost feel them stepping away,” Sawyer says. “But I’ve loved it, even though it’s never been as lucrative as what I might have earned if I had gone into commercial appraisal.”

Why that might be is a bit of a mystery, Sawyer says. The field is much more open now than when she entered it as one of the few female property tax assessors in Maine. But it is also much more challenging. After all, Sawyer notes, when she started, there was no homestead exemption to calculate, and the tax increment financing district, a major driver of capital improvements in South Portland, had yet to be invented.

“Computers have been a godsend and have really made the job easier,” Sawyer said, noting another change. “When I started, we had one mainframe computer, but really nothing else. It was mostly all done by hand, on paper.”

And there are also the headaches, although Sawyer, who describes herself as “no pushover,” says she always thrived on those. Seeing residents and business owners angry with their assessments is an opportunity to educate, she says, and defending against a tax appeal is a challenge on which she tends to thrive.

“The Maine Mall appeal was stressful, but to tell you the truth, I kind of thrive on that kind of thing, so it was a good kind of stress,” she said. “I spent a lot of time and energy, and, frankly, the city spent a lot of money, successfully defending those appeals.”

The mall sold in 2003 for $265 million and, following the national recession, Sawyer reduced its assessment to $210 million in 2010. But the mall owners wanted another $60 million knocked off of that. Had Sawyer not been able to defend her work in court, South Portland might have had to return nearly $1 million in property taxes to the mall.

The mall area is, of course, one of the big changes Sawyer has witnessed during her tenure. When she started, the first wings – what is now JC Penny and Bon-Ton – had just been added, but very little else that we recognize today was there.

“That whole area has developed since I came on,” Sawyer said. “Almost all of the retail area around the mall, most of the restaurants and quite a few of the hotels, none of that was there when I came on. Also, most of the houses out on Highland Avenue – that was mostly empty – and most all of the office parks, that’s all been built since I started. Really, it’s hard to believe the growth that has occurred in South Portland in the little time that I’ve been here.”

And there’s also been a shift in demographics. What was in the early 1980s still a conservative city made up largely of blue-collar workers has evolved, with corresponding spikes in market value, as Ferry Village and Willard Beach have become the “it” neighborhoods.

“Values have really taken off with the gentrification of those areas,” Sawyer said. “In many ways, South Portland really is a different city than the one I started in.”

One telling statistic, when Sawyer began in South Portland, the city’s total valuation was about $825 million Today, it’s nearly $3.7 billion.

In most municipalities, the assessor works directly for the town council or board of selectmen. However, in South Portland, the position is placed by the city charter under the finance director. That means City Manager Jim Gailey, rather than the city council, will hire Sawyer’s replacement. And Gailey says Sawyer, who has worked under five city managers and four finance directors, will be hard to replace.

“Needless to say Elizabeth has seen a lot over this time,” he said. “She has played a huge role through revaluations and defending the city assessments through many residential and commercial property appeals over the years. She can stand up and defend and win, and that is the real indication of a true assessor and of her abilities.”

Gailey said the assessor’s position has just been advertised and others in the assessing office will step up to fill in until a replacement is found. A decision on whether South Portland will continue to handle Westbrook’s assessing work remains to be determined, he said, although that is the goal.

Meanwhile, Sawyer says she and her husband will probably do some consulting work in the area as well as taking some much-deserved time off.

“I’ve told both South Portland and Westbrook, if they need anything, I’m only at the other end of the phone,” she said.

“I suppose, when I look back, I could have ended up doing a lot of things,” Sawyer said, “but it’s been a very interesting career, and I’m grateful for that.”

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