BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — With real estate taxes making up 85 percent of the town’s annual revenue stream, maintaining property values in West Newbury is critical to the viability of the town. That’s why Finance Director Warren Sproul is proposing what he hopes will be a more effective and cost-efficient way to run the Assessor’s Office.
With a vacancy in the full-time chief assessor’s post since last November and the assessor’s clerk resigning in January, Sproul believes now is an opportune time to implement a new employee model in this key department.
His plan is to reduce the chief assessor position to a part-time post of 15 to 19 hours weekly. He then seeks to reorganize the office to create a full-time assessor’s assistant position instead of the assessor’s clerk position.
In addition, he wants to contract on a one-year basis an appraisal firm to “measure and list parcels, perform property valuations, assist the assessor in building assessment tables” — and, in general, handle the field work required of the Assessor’s Office by the state Department of Revenue.
Sproul’s model — employing a part-time professional to head the department — is similar to ones used in Groveland, Merrimac and Haverhill. Full-time chief assessors’ positions are more typically found in larger municipalities, he said.
After two rounds of interviews Sproul has offered the part-time chief assessor’s position to Shelia Hambleton of Nahant at a rate of $40 per hour and a maximum salary of $39,672. Hambleton, who is scheduled to begin work today, will work half days on Tuesdays and Fridays and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. She will be eligible for 57 hours of paid vacation per year, accrued on a monthly basis.
For the next step in his plan, Sproul will meet with the Personnel Board to create a full-time assistant assessor position. This person will serve as “the face in the Assessors Office” and answer “questions from constituents on behalf on the assessor in her absence,” said Sproul. Unlike the current clerk’s position, the new assistant assessor will be trained in fieldwork and higher level assessing functions and would earn a maximum annual salary of $49,778.
Patriot Properties Inc., the outside firm Sproul hopes to hire to meet the DOR required fieldwork, would provide “full measure and list of properties within the town at $20,000 per year.” This price includes free software for GIS mapping, although a $1,500 annual maintenance cost for GIS is required.
John Cena Sr. of the Board of Assessors said his team is receptive to Sproul’s idea. “The savings is substantial to the municipality,” Cena noted.
The total budget for the Assessor’s office this year is $136,204, but falls to $128,315 under Sproul’s new model next year.
The reorganization comes on the heels of several months of instability in the Assessor’s Office. Last November Karen Rassais resigned as chief assessor, citing weariness over a difficult political climate in town in recent years. She was earning an annual salary of $86,681 at the time. Rassais’ departure followed a controversial change in the town’s finance director position and the resignation of the assistant treasurer position within the previous 18 months.
Then in January, Ellen Jameson resigned as clerk for the assessor’s office without giving a reason. Later that month Lauren Woekel of Pelham, N.H., accepted the full-time chief assessor’s position with a starting salary of $75,000 but quickly changed her mind before even beginning her first day on the job. She said that travel, salary and benefits being offered in West Newbury played a factor in her decision to stick with her current position.