CUMBERLAND — Roughly two years after several towns began outsourcing assessing services to Cumberland County, the partnership may have run its course.
Town Manager Bill Shane said the town is looking at other options outside of the regional assessor, after a recent change in staff at the county level.
Shane said Cumberland could decide to stay with the regional assessor or could look at alternatives, such as partnering with another town.
The regional assessor serves Cumberland, Yarmouth, Falmouth and Casco.
“The issue is, if we are not going to continue (with the county) after June 30, (2016,) we have to give them notice by Jan. 1,” Shane said. He said he was directed to investigate returning to a shared assessor with one other town following a meeting of the Town Council and Board of Assessment Review.
Cumberland and Yarmouth signed on to share county assessing services in November 2013; Falmouth followed in March of 2014. Gary James was hired as director of regional assessing by the county in November 2013. In October, he accepted a job in South Carolina and Renee LaChapelle, the deputy director, was named interim director.
Despite Cumberland’s decision to seek alternatives, the other three towns appear set to stay with the county.
Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said Cumberland’s move makes this a good time to review the arrangement. But from an administrative standpoint, he said, Falmouth has received good service from the county.
“We feel very comfortable with how the county has been handling it,” Poore said.
Poore said Falmouth had been primarily served by LaChapelle, while Cumberland was handled by James.
“We’re in pretty good shape over here, there’s not as much of a transition need for us,” Poore said.
The Falmouth Town Council will discuss the issue at its Nov. 9 meeting.
“The council just wants to talk about how well it’s gone,” Poore said. “Obviously we’re paying attention to what Cumberland may or may not decide to do.”
Yarmouth Town Manager Nathaniel Tupper said he was aware Cumberland was interested in sharing an assessor with another town, which could be Yarmouth if that town also left the county program. However, Tupper said he thinks the regional assessing model is “working the way it’s supposed to be.”
“I don’t see this as a time to leave the county regional model,” Tupper said.
Yarmouth is in a different position from the other towns involved, Tupper said, because it has a contract with the county to perform a re-evaluation. He said this is an instance where contracting with the county is beneficial, because the county has more staff and resources.
In the past, Tupper said, Yarmouth would have had to go to bid for such a service, which likely would have cost more than $400,000. The re-evaluation by the county costs $160,000, he said.
Casco Town Manager David Morton said Casco’s Board of Selectmen seems content to stay with the shared service.
“We’ve had a number of different models in the past,” Morton said. “I think the county model is a good one, and we’re looking to stay with it.”
Shane said if he can’t find a partnership for Cumberland, it “turns the table” on the issue. He said he hopes to be able to report back to the Town Council by Dec. 14.
“It was worth a try,” Shane said of the regional model. “We tried to make this work regionally. We’ll go out there and see if we can find another dance partner.”
The decision in Falmouth to move to the regional model was contested, and ultimately saw the town sued by a handful of residents who claimed the move violated the Town Charter.
Willie Audet, one of those residents who filed the lawsuit, said the role of assessor was critical to the town.
“It’s a fundamental role of the town itself,” Audet said. “… We thought farming it out wasn’t the right thing to do.”
The case was ultimately dismissed, according to Poore.
Cumberland and Yarmouth shared an assessor, Bill Healy, for nearly 10 years until 2013, and now share a code enforcement officer. Healy left for an assessing job in Scarborough. Falmouth’s longtime assessor, Anne Gregory, retired in 2014.
Shane said these are challenging times, with fewer qualified assessors are available. He said an increasing number of assessors in the area are retiring, and it’s a difficult position to fill.
“There are not a lot of assessors who can pull off a multi-town program,” Shane said. “It’s going to be an interesting problem we’re all going to be faced with.”
Shane said since it appears Falmouth and Yarmouth are both committed to staying with the county for now, Cumberland will be “looking at what other partnerships are out there.”
“I will report back to the Town Council in December,” Shane said. “We will have to decide what to do from there.”
Tupper said there is a meeting in the works so area town managers can discuss “what models we might want to consider.”
“I’m not opposed to being open-minded and looking at alternatives,” Tupper said. “But I’m not thinking a change in (county) staff is a reason to do that.”
Given its proximity, North Yarmouth could be the partner Cumberland is looking for.
North Yarmouth Town Manager Rosemary Roy said the town has issued a request for proposals for assessing services. She said she has spoken with county assessors over the past year to see about services, but the costs were too high.
Roy said Cumberland has not reached out, but town officials may if they know North Yarmouth has released a RFP.
“That may occur, but nothing has come across my desk yet,” Roy said.