No-'pushover' South Portland assessor to retire

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Hanging on a wall in City Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer’s office is a plaque, written in Latin, that advises “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”

That pretty much sums up her attitude. 

“It was here when I started. I’m trying to decide if I want to take it with me,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer, 57, will retire Jan. 1 after working in the assessor’s office for 30 years. Sawyer and her husband, who is the tax assessor for the town of Windham, plan to become snowbirds after she retires. 

When she became head assessor at the age of 29, Sawyer was the youngest person to hold the position in South Portland and one of the only female assessors in southern Maine. 

“Being a woman in this profession back then was unusual,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “It really was a man’s kind of profession.”

During her tenure, Sawyer has worked under four different finance directors, five city managers, and she has seen the assessing landscape of the city shift dramatically. 

When she started in the mid 1980s, the valuation of South Portland was about $825,000. “It’s now $3.6 billion, if you don’t count the Homestead Exemption,” Sawyer said. 

Sawyer recalled that when the city formed its first tax increment financing district in 1985, she could remember map and lot numbers by heart – “This is one of the weird things you store in your head as an assessor,” she said – and recalled what it was like to ink tax maps on Mylar and print them in the basement of City Hall.

“I thought I was going to die from the ammonia,” she said. “South Portland really has changed. To me, the demographics have shifted quite a bit.”

Sawyer said when she started, the city was “kind of a ‘Joe Six-Pack’ type of town, but I hate to use that term.”

South Portland used to be a “very working-class community,” she said, and a city that was fiscally conservative. The majority of residents did not want to see a lot of money spent on schools and infrastructure.

“Today, I think people have a different mindset,” Sawyer said. 

Most notably, Sawyer witnessed the sale of the Maine Mall in 2003 for approximately $265 million,and the tax appeal that followed.

In 2010, Sawyer and her team reduced the valuation of the property to $210 million. After the Board of Assessment Review unanimously rejected the mall owner’s efforts to reduce the 2010 valuation by $60 million in the summer of 2011, the appeal was dropped in 2013. If the board had ruled in the mall’s favor, the city would have had to repay about $900,000 in property taxes. 

Sawyer said her defense of the assessment of the property and her role in assembling a legal team and group of appraisers to fight the appeal was “one of her biggest successes.”

City Manager Jim Gailey agreed.

“She can stand up and defend and win, and that is the real indication of a true assessor and (her) abilities,” he said.

Sawyer has a “tremendous winning percentage,” Gailey said Wednesday. “Her assessments hold up in court – that’s a huge testament to Elizabeth’s abilities.”

“You’re always going to have somebody who’s not going to be happy, especially if they’re a large taxpayer,” Sawyer said.

Being an assessor who isn’t a “pushover,” who can look at a valuation and determine whether there was a discrepancy and whether the city should spend money to “defend an indefensible position,” she said, “That’s a key component of being a good tax assessor. You have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, as the old song goes.”

“I’ll let you in on my secret,” she said leaning in and lowering her voice to a whisper: assessing the city is “quite easy, because it’s so homogeneous.”

South Portland’s demographics are diverse, she said, “but when you look at the housing, there’s no really substandard housing that’s really bad.” Some gentrification has crept in, she said, but the residential market doesn’t span a very wide spectrum.

Sawyer said she wants to do “some more creative things” in her retirement. “I’m not really sure what I want to be when I grow up,” she said. 

“What makes my job so interesting is seeing what happens to property over time and having to continue to educate myself on what’s true and what isn’t when it comes to some of these theories about how you appraise property,” she said.

“I look at all this stuff I’ve collected over the years, like my Magic 8 Ball,” Sawyer said, picking it up and shaking it.

“Should I lower that assessment?” Sawyer asked. “As I see it, yes.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer will retire Jan. 1.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.