Obstacle: assessors in Vermont are in short supply
By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger
Two-thirds of Vermont’s 254 municipalities can expect a reappraisal order this year, according to the state’s Department of Taxes. And with so many townwide reappraisals in order, the state faces another issue: a lack of resources to handle the demand.
“There’re not enough firms to go around to do this; that’s a huge problem,” Jill Remick, the tax department’s director of property valuation and review, told the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, Jan. 12.
Even towns with full-time assessors almost always contract with a company to perform townwide appraisals, which estimate the value of each property. Those valuations form the basis of property tax bills.
In Vermont, where there have been an average of 16 reappraisals a year over the last decade, there simply aren’t enough appraisers to handle 165 towns.
Unlike many states, Vermont does not mandate that towns update their property values on a regular basis. With the real estate market ballooning in the last two years, towns’ grand lists no longer reflect reality. Now, municipalities up and down the state will have to find contractors to perform reappraisals, fighting over a dwindling pool of expert assessors.
“Since Covid, we’ve seen a gangbusters real estate market,” Jake Feldman, a senior fiscal analyst in the department, said in the presentation to lawmakers Thursday. Feldman, along with Remick, delivered a presentation on the Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA — a percentage applied to a town’s education property tax rate, which serves to correct the town’s grand list property values.
If a town has a low CLA, it means houses are selling for more than their grand list value.
If a town’s CLA dips to 85% or rises above 115% — signaling a significant change in property values — it triggers a mandatory reappraisal. And according to the state’s 2022 equalization study, 137 municipalities have fallen below the 85% threshold, though they still have the opportunity to appeal their CLA before this spring.
Even the statewide CLA — a metric the tax department calculated to emphasize its point — fell to 83.1%.
“That’s like saying, maybe the whole state needs to reappraise,” Feldman said.
But Vermont lacks the experts required for the statewide demand.
“Not only are there limited numbers of contract reappraisal firms, but many towns have already and are about to transition from elected boards of listers to appointed contract assessors,” explained Lisa Wright, president of the Vermont Assessors and Listers Association, “and there is a very limited pool of qualified individuals for that role as well.”
With few firms to choose from, towns risk sacrificing quality, she suggested, by working with people who lack sufficient experience for the job.
According to Wright, the field suffers from “graying,” and many qualified assessors are on their way toward retirement. Part of her job is figuring out how to recruit more people to the profession.
Ed Clodfelter, a senior appraiser with the Franklin County-based firm New England Municipal Resource Center, says the firm has already hired extra staff and is continuing to hire to meet the increased demand.
“This is a niche employment career that many do not know about,” he said. “We are always looking for qualified staff,” adding that the company is currently booked through 2025 for projects.
Many states require towns to reappraise on a regular basis, Remick, the property valuation director, told lawmakers on Thursday, calling a four-to-six-year schedule a “national standard.” In Vermont, some towns haven’t reappraised since 2005. More than 100 of the towns that need reappraisals haven’t done so for more than eight years, according to the tax department’s data.
In all likelihood, towns triggered for reappraisal might not be able to book a contractor for several years, and the tax department has never punished a municipality for failing to perform a reappraisal fast enough, Remick said. But every year, towns are required to submit a plan regarding their ordered reappraisal.
Financially, reappraisals shouldn’t burden towns, but that’s not always the case. According to Remick, the projects typically cost about $100 per parcel. Each year, towns receive $8.50 per parcel from the state that they’re supposed to save toward hiring an appraisal firm, but the legislation does allow leeway, and some towns spend the money elsewhere, she said. Plus, with reappraisal firms in hot demand, some towns prove less desirable customers than others.
“There are smaller towns that can’t even get a contractor to reply” to their request for proposals, Remick said. She also pointed out that multiple municipalities can band together to hire a firm, which can solve the conundrum for small towns.
In theory, reappraisals don’t significantly impact the tax burden on homeowners despite the widespread undervaluing of property. If a property rises in value similarly to other properties in town, there should be little effect on an individual’s taxes. Next year, Vermonters can expect to pay 3.7% more in property taxes, even though the statewide CLA dropped more than 8%, according to the tax department.
Next week, the House Ways and Means Committee will reconvene to discuss reappraisals in further depth, according to Rep. Emily Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the committee’s chair.
“I know it’s a really hot topic for constituents,” she said. “I’m going to encourage us to learn about it thoroughly, and then do the hot topic-ing next week.”