Aquinnah voters support change to assessors

Town voters vote on warrant articles at Aquinnah special town meeting.

West Tisbury school students ready to present their case to town voters. — Brian Dowd

Aquinnah selectmen and assessors met with members of the Regional Resource Group (RRG) Thursday to discuss the possibility of outsourcing the assessing department.

It’s the latest attempt by the board of selectmen to garner some control over the assessors’ department. Last year, selectmen convinced town meeting voters to change the board from elected to appointed after several years of contentious meetings between the two boards that at one point had the town accusing one the town’s paid assessor of breaking into town hall to work.

President and regional tax assessor for RRG, Harold Scheid, provided background information about the company in order to “draw a picture” of how they operate.

“We founded the company 17 years ago, recognizing that there was a need, especially in smaller communities, for affordable but professional assessment services,” Scheid said. “We started out working with a collection of five communities in north-central Massachusetts, and since have grown to 29 cities and towns.”

Instead of using the term “outsourcing,” Scheid said he prefers to think of his group as town employees that have a different relationship with the community.

RRG currently has 24 tax specialists, all assigned to various communities throughout the commonwealth.

Scheid said many of the towns RRG serves are similar in size to Aquinnah, although they do serve three cities: Marlboro, Fitchburg, and Greenfield.

“Interestingly, all these communities come to us with all the same issue: They are facing tight budgets they are trying to respond to,” Scheid said. “There’s also quite a lack of folks that can be hired to perform assessment functions.”

According to Scheid, their regional assessing staff is seasoned, with all the credentials and experience necessary to provide thorough fair-market value determinations.

“Everything from skills and knowledge surrounding tax policy, property valuation, right down to matters of property conveyance — all the sub-tasks assessors typically find themselves solving,” Scheid said.

Scheid gave an example of a slightly larger community than Aquinnah that RRG serves.

“The town of Leverett approached us about two years ago, as their assessor was retiring. The gentleman that held the position held it for about 10 years,” Scheid said.

The town advertised for the position and found nobody interested or available to fill the role, so Scheid said they hired RRG to provide all services needed to run the assessing office.

Scheid explained that the lead assessor is complemented by an inspector, and an administrative assessor who handles the “day-to-day record keeping, everything from auto-excise abatements, to deed transfers.”

“We have a rich collection of people to provide a unique model of assessment services; an alternative to the way towns have historically staffed their offices,” Scheid said.

One major element of the presentation was the RRG TelePresence Help Desk; a way for assessors at the company’s headquarters in Leominster to serve the town of Aquinnah remotely.

“We have some really wonderful technology we are rolling out this year,” Scheid said. “In these small communities with limited hours, we will be deploying technology to provide 40-hour coverage in town halls for that taxpayer that comes in and has a need to engage with somebody on the assessment staff. They get the next best thing to a live body.”

For Aquinnah, RRG would install what Scheid referred to as a TelePresence Portal. “The taxpayer would come in, sit down in front of this portal, and we would recognize immediately at our Leominster office that there is someone who has taken a seat in front of the display,” Scheid said. “What comes up is a live image of the person at our office, with all the resources available to answer any questions that might come up.”

Town administrator Jeffrey Madison asked how much time the company would need to spend in Aquinnah to carry out the necessary assessing services.

Scheid responded, saying “there is no replacing in-community time. There are certain tasks that have to be done on the ground.”

Scheid explained he would want RRG assessors to be on-Island intermittently in order to better understand the community as a whole.

“I’m confident that by sending our folks out selectively for blocks of time throughout the year, we would be able to accomplish all the tasks at hand,” Scheid said.

Assessor Adam Wilson asked what remaining responsibilities would be left to the elected and appointed assessors.

Scheid said there is always a “courtship” as RRG gets a sense of how the community has functioned in the past.

“We don’t look to trounce on your past work in any way, we respect what you have done,” Scheid said. “That being said, there is a need for us to meet with the board periodically.”

RRG promised in the presentation a “shared scope of services” where the company would meet with the board of assessors and divide up the responsibilities.

Assessor Marsha Shufrin asked how long the transition period would be going from onsite assessors to a company like RRG.

Over three to six months, Scheid said he would expect the transition over to RRG service to be “fairly smooth” and within two or three years, the group would be fully acquainted with the town.

If selectmen decide to hire RRG for assessing services, it will cost approximately $38,400 for fiscal year 2020, and will increase every fiscal year. The TelePresence Portal would cost $2,400 to ship and install, and require an annual $3,800 hosting fee.