Woodstock, Norwich among Vt. towns rethinking elected listers to decide property values

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-28-2023 11:19 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Two Upper Valley towns, Woodstock and Norwich, will ask their voters at Town Meeting whether to eliminate the position of town lister, which is an elected office, and replace it with a professional assessor who is hired by the town.

A number of Vermont towns since 2013 have voted to end their use of listers, elected officials tasked with determining the fair market value of real estate properties within the town. A lister’s duties include collecting and maintaining data related to properties, including changes in a property’s assessed value or structural additions, and to respond to property owners with grievances or questions about their assessment.

While Vermont law requires towns to have one or more elected listers, 2013 legislation gave towns the option to vote on eliminating the position and instead hire a “professionally qualified” assessor.

The Vermont Tax Department, in a written overview of a lister’s role and responsibilities, stated that today’s lister requires more hours and more extensive training and knowledge than in the past due to the changing complexity of property assessment.

“Years ago, a lister’s job was seasonal and part-time,” the department states. “Listers spent a few days, weeks or months out of the year collecting data on new and improved properties to produce and defend a grand list. Since then, ongoing legislation and taxation complexities have brought about many changes in Vermont. The lister’s job has grown markedly.”

Notably, Norwich and Woodstock differ both in their reasons for proposing an assessor model and their paths to bring the question to the voters.

In Woodstock, the Selectboard voted unanimously this month to place the question on the town warning.

Woodstock officials, including Selectboard members and interim Town Manager Tom Yennerell, spoke highly of their two listers, Kathy Avellino and Tim McCarthy, calling them “qualified and knowledgeable” individuals who have delivered excellent service for the town.

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But board members believe the department would be assured more stability if these positions were hired and employed by the town rather than elected every three years.

“The benefit I see is the continuity from people not having to run for reelection,” explained board Chairman Joe Swanson at a Jan. 17 board meeting.

Yennerell noted that several Vermont towns have vacancies in their listers’ offices because no residents filed as candidates.

“The job is complicated,” Yennerell told the Valley News last week, adding that the residency requirement to run for a town election further limits a town’s access to viable candidates.

Even if a candidate is elected, new or inexperienced listers need extensive training, which can affect operations in the listers office, Selectboard vice chairperson Ray Bourgeois said at last week’s meeting.

The Selectboard believes there will be no financial impact by the change, as wages currently paid to the town listers will become the compensation for either a full-time assessor or two or three part-time assessors.

Should the article pass, Avellino and McCarthy would continue serving as interim listers until the board creates a job description for the position and hires a candidate. McCarthy and Avellino would be invited to interview for the new opening, the board said.

Avellino and McCarthy told the Valley News that they did not have a comment on the article.

In contrast, Norwich’s article was placed through a voter petition rather than the Selectboard.

The petition, which contains 205 resident signatures, was filed by Liz Blum, a former Norwich lister and a longtime advocate for turning those duties over to a professional assessor and other town boards.

“Listers are not trained professionals,” Blum told the Valley News. “They do not have the tools to do appraisals well.”

Blum, who served as a Norwich lister more than a decade ago, said she would not be qualified today to perform an assessment.

Norwich has a long history of conflict between residents and the listers office, Blum said. There had been several costly lawsuits prior to 2011 over contested valuations and complaints that the listers were not assessing all properties fairly or equitably, according to Blum.

In 2013, the town began delegating the assessment responsibilities to professional firms, retaining the listers only to certify the grand list. But in 2017, the assessor — Bill Krajeski of New England Municipal Consultants — sought a release from the contract due to friction with the Board of Listers that Krajeski said made a working partnership between the listers and assessors untenable.

Since Krajeski’s departure, Norwich has not conducted a townwide revaluation, prompting the state to issue an order of compliance last year.

Lister Pam Smith said some residents have unfairly blamed the listers for the revaluation lapse.

Only the Selectboard is authorized to approve a revaluation contract, Smith told the Valley News. The listers had encouraged the board in 2021 to hire KRT Appraisal, a Massachusetts firm, which was the only firm to submit a bid to the town. But the Selectboard wanted multiple offers to consider and declined.

Last December, the Selectboard voted to authorize a contract with KRT, due to the state’s directive.

Smith, who opposes eliminating the listers, said elected officers give residents more oversight over how their properties are assessed.

“Keeping them as elected positions preserves local control and accountability,” Smith explained. “Town residents know the town; you can reach out to them. I think it’s important (these positions) are held by people who are from the town and who have a dog in the fight.”

But Blum said that electing listers increases the risk of subjectivity in the process, which the state stresses must be “fair and equitable.”

Smith also questioned whether Norwich would be able to find a full-time assessor in the current regional job market.

Last week VTDigger reported that “two thirds of Vermont’s 254 municipalities can expect a reappraisal order this year” from the Department of Taxes, as a result of soaring property values.

Vermont requires municipalities to conduct a reappraisal when there is a differential of more than 15% between a town’s total assessed value and the actual market value of those properties.

According to Jill Remick, the tax department’s director of property valuation and review, there are not enough assessment firms in the region to serve this volume of demand.

Smith noted that if Norwich votes to adopt the assessor model, the Vermont provision requires the town to hire that assessor within 45 days of the vote.

In addition, the Norwich Selectboard has not discussed yet how to fund that position, which was not included in the proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2024.

While Norwich has reserves to fund an unanticipated position, Blum said the Selectboard will have to create a budget. The town currently budgets $4,500 for wages to the listers.

Voting day for both Norwich and Woodstock residents will be on March 7.

Norwich voting will be at Tracy Memorial Hall from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Woodstock voting will be at Town Hall from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

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