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Towns may consolidate assessing departments with Cumberland County

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Towns may consolidate assessing departments with Cumberland County

FALMOUTH — Several towns are considering contracting with Cumberland County to consolidate their assessing departments, which they say could save money and provide better stability.

It could also mean less personalized service and public accessibility.

Falmouth, Cumberland, North Yarmouth, Yarmouth and Windham are considering the option, County Manager Peter Crichton said, although nothing has been finalized.

"This an opportunity for the county to provide assessing services for those communities at the same level of service, and also provide an opportunity for other communities to benefit from having a county assessing office," he said.

By consolidating departments, Crichton said, towns can increase efficiency and save money when they assess property values.

In the arrangement, towns would still maintain control over their assessing departments and would have to approve employment of the assessors. Towns would also retain local control over the appeals process.

The five towns considering the proposal have about 23,000 properties, according to state valuation data.

And while the towns have yet to OK a contract with the county, Crichton said he expects Yarmouth and Cumberland to be on board by October.

Those two towns shared assessor Bill Healey for the last nine years until he accepted a Scarborough assessing job in May, leaving both towns without an assessor.

Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper said the prospect of contracting with the county is appealing because the specialized nature of the job makes finding a qualified and competent person difficult.

He said Cumberland and Yarmouth have had a "heck of a good deal" splitting the salary and benefits of an assessor for their nearly 7,500 combined properties.

"As it grows, the county can then spread the costs with more towns and lower contributions ," Tupper said. "And it will give us the institutional capacity to carry us over through turnover."

Falmouth is also in a position to benefit from county assessing consolidation, Town Manager Nathan Poore said.

Earlier this year, Falmouth Assessor Anne Gregory announced she will be retiring  next year, providing an opportunity to shift the town's services to the county, Poore said, instead of hiring new staff.

Poore introduced the idea to the Town Council Monday night and said although it presents some challenges – like transferring software, the schedule of revaluations, and customer service – they are not insurmountable.

"Are there risks? Yes, but we can rebuild this department easier than other departments," he said, contrasting it with the Public Works Department, where if it failed, the town would have to buy new snow plows and trucks at a significant cost.

Poore said the most savings will be seen if the consolidation can start with just a few towns and grow, although it will likely not be a large savings.

"I don't see the driver as cost savings," he said, noting that he would recommend any savings to be directed into an account to help pay for revaluations that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. "There's so much talk about regionalization right now and this is an opportunity to do that."

Falmouth now conducts in-house revaluations, Poore said.

Contracting with the county, along with Cumberland, will likely have little impact on the average resident looking for assessing services, said Alex Kimball, county finance director.

Kimball, who previously worked as finance director for Cumberland, said assessing department functions and staff are relatively unknown to the general population.

"When the county takes over, I hope people will continue to not know about it, because that means we're doing a good job," he said. "Traffic is surprisingly light coming in to see an assessor. We'll never be at a point when someone couldn't make an appointment and meet with an assessor."

In the assessing world, New England is an anomaly. Throughout the country, counties generally host assessing services, along with other services, Crichton said.

And this would not be the first service to be managed by the county. Cumberland County manages emergency dispatch for 15 municipalities, as well as community development offices, which help distribute grants.

This is also not the first time the county has attempted to lead a consolidation effort for assessing services. In 2006, municipalities and the county discussed transferring all assessing duties to county control, but the plan failed. 

Unlike the current plan, where towns would contract with the county, the prior move would have transferred authority, which officials said made some municipalities uneasy. They also said the benefits were not completely evident.

On Monday night, assessing consolidation seemed to pique the interest of Falmouth councilors, but some remained hesitant about throwing their full support behind the plan.

"I think it's worth pursuing," Councilor Russ Anderson said. "With four towns, I'm comfortable pursuing it. But if we're talking about county-wide, I'd be skeptical."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.