The Role of the Assessor
Township of Union
The municipal revaluation process is an important part of good government. The purpose of a
A common, but erronous, perception of municipal property revaluation is that it is something to be avoided, as it leads to great turbulence within the community.
revaluation is to assess all properties at the same standard of value, that being true market value, in order to equitably distribute the tax burden among all taxpayers. The revaluation of a municipality should be conducted as often as necessary in order to maintain uniform fair assessments.
A common, but erroneous, perception of municipal property revaluation is that it is something to be avoided as it leads to great turbulence within the community. In truth, revaluation programs result in fairer and more equitable taxes. Every year throughout New Jersey, numerous revaluations are conducted in a professional and routine manner. While most of these successful revaluations go unnoticed, the rare problematic program grabs the spotlight.
A successful revaluation is brought about by a great deal of teamwork. Using the support and guidelines of the Division of Taxation and County Board of Taxation, the revaluation contractor and the municipal staff must function as a team under the leadership of the municipal assessor.
When the assessor takes on a leader ship role and is
given the support needed, a revaluation becomes—
not something to be avoided— but an oppportunity to
improve the fairness of taxes within the community.
Revaluations that fail to produce the desired results or that are extremely disruptive to the community usually occur for one of two reasons. Either the municipality gives total control of the program to the contractor and provides little or no involvement in the process, or, the municipality exerts an excessive amount of control that limits the effectiveness of the contractor.
The municipal assessor is the key person in balancing the authority given to the contractor against the measured involvement of the municipality. This is accomplished by the assessor being a “hands on” participant in every aspect of the revaluation process.
Early Stages Once the decision to revalue has been made, the assessor should obtain from the Division of Taxation the standard contract for the hiring of a revaluation firm. The assessor, with the assistance of the municipal attorney, should then broaden the contract to include provisions that would enhance the quality of the revaluation program according to the needs of that particular municipality.
For example, a township having hilly topography resulting in spectacular views that significantly increase the market value of certain properties, may find it beneficial to expand the contract provision of photographing only buildings in order to include views photographed from the appropriate properties. These photographs will be beneficial to the assessor and revaluation firm when attempting to reconcile why two comparable homes sold for significantly different amounts. Adapting the contract to the specific needs of a municipality will help lay the groundwork for a successful program.
Another important detail in the “early going” is an updated Tax Map accurately depicting every parcel of property within the municipality. An accurate Tax Map is essential for a good quality revaluation. As far in advance as possible, the assessor should determine that each property on the Tax List is identified on the Tax Map. Providing engineering services to the assessor for the maintenance of the Tax Map is one example of how the governing body can provide helpful assistance in the fair assessment of all properties. Too often municipalities do not allocate sufficient funds to keep the Tax Map current. Consequently, subdivisions and other important map depictions may be absent. This creates the potential for assessment errors.
Public Relations Many people would argue that there is no part of the revaluation process more important than good public relations. However, public relations is often perceived to be limited to only providing the public with information and education. Good public relations must be much more than this. In order to obtain the public trust of the assessment process, “words” must be accompanied with the actions necessary to promote a sense of confidence to the taxpayers.
Here are a few examples:
Informational mailings, taxpayer meetings and cable television programming are great ways to provide the public with general types of information regarding the revaluation process. These forms of education are best conducted by the assessor and revaluation firm rather than the governing body or municipal administrator. The assessor is not an advocate for the municipality and serves in a quasi-judicial manner with the primary goal being fair and equitable assessments. Certainly, the governing body and administration are advocates for the municipality and their direct involvement in the assessment process may undermine the public confidence that is being sought.
An effective method of increasing public trust is for the assessor to take a proactive approach rather than being reactionary to problems that surface. Reaching out to civic and homeowner associations and offering to speak in a forum other than Town Hall is a great way for the assessor to foster public trust.
Have the property inspectors assemble in Town Hall at the start and end of each day. This seems insignificant but will often create a sense of familiarity and trust between the municipal staff and the revaluation firm. This type of trust has a way of permeating out to the general public.
The governing body and administration's contribution
to public relations should be to refer all revaluation-
related questions and problems to the assessor.
Send out a questionnaire. During the home inspection phase of the program, the assessor might consider sending a questionnaire to homeowners asking them to evaluate the thoroughness and courteousness of the inspectors. This should be done at the beginning of the inspection process. If there are negative responses from the questionnaires, early adjustments to the inspection process can be implemented. Conversely, favorable responses from the public encourage the inspectors to continue their good work, heightens the confidence level of the public and ensures the quality of the program.
Establish checks and balances. The assessor who physically spot checks the revaluation firm’s building descriptions and dimensions sends a message to the public that checks and balances are in place. Public trust is the result.
Establish the role of the governing body and administration. The governing body and administration’s contribution to public relations should be to refer all revaluation-related questions and problems to the assessor. If this policy is followed consistently, a clear message will be sent to the public that the revaluation program is not political and once again this fosters the public trust. Meetings between the assessor and administration to discuss various aspects of the program are encouraged. However, interaction with the public should always be referred to the assessor.
Hopefully, these few examples illustrate that public relations is not just about meeting with taxpayers. It is how and where meetings are conducted as well as actions by the assessor and revaluation firm. The end result will be earning the public’s trust and confidence in the program.
Field Inspections Accurate data obtained during the inspection phase is critical to the success of the program. Communication and exchange of ideas between the assessor, the revaluation firm supervisor, and field inspectors will help to accomplish this goal. Building components that the assessor feels will affect value must be discussed prior to beginning inspections. Once all properties have been visited, it is too late to request that items not previously discussed now be included in their descriptions. Providing the inspectors with building permit data and sale price information can significantly increase the quality of the data collected.
Demanding neatness from the inspectors may seem trivial. However, neatness is extremely important for accuracy as well as for good public relations. People seem to assume a neat product is correct and a sloppy product is filled with errors. Although this may not be a proper assumption, sloppiness often results in a no confidence vote by the public.
Municipal Teamwork Contributions and assistance from other municipal offices can often be beneficial to the quality of the program. The Township Engineer may have file cabinets filled with subdivision maps providing accurate lot sizes in square feet or acres. The Zoning and Planning Boards may have resolutions (approval or denial) that could assist in determining a property’s market value. The Health Office has records indicating what properties have environmental contamination problems. Hopefully, any municipality preparing for a revaluation understands that teamwork, with the assessor as the team leader, is a good approach to a successful result.
When the assessor takes on a leadership role and is given the support needed, a revaluation becomes – not something to be avoided – but an opportunity to improve the fairness of taxes within the community.