When to Talk, Walk, Run . . .
Collection of stories from long-time assessor
(from Maine Townsman, February 2001)
by Michael L. Austin, CAE, CMA
Partner, Maine Equalization Consultants

Most local government officials are exposed to an angry and possibly abusive taxpayer at some time during their public service. Unfortunately, this seems to come with the job. Municipal assessors and assessing agents, because of the nature of their work, probably get more than their share of the taxpayer abuse and anger.

The field work that assessors do sometimes puts them in harms way. You are on the taxpayer's turf, and you may be viewed as an unwanted intruder - someone who will bring unpleasantness to the taxpayer.

As a local government official, you are responsible to the public and should always present yourself in a professional manner and answer all inquiries regardless of the level of detail requested or the mood of the taxpayer you happen to be dealing with at the time.

In over 35 years of assessing work, I have found that the vast majority of taxpayer-assessor interactions ends amicably. However, there are those rare times when no one agrees on what is taxable and what is not, and the mood of the meeting turns confrontational rather than ending on a positive note.

On those occasions when the individual you are dealing with will not listen, will not accept your answers, and thinks you are out to get him, you need to carefully assess the potential volatility of the situation.

Confrontational people and situations should not be taken lightly, particularly when you are on the taxpayer's turf (doing field work). These situations have the potential of ending tragically. Always size up the psychological frame of mind of the person you are meeting. Survey your physical surroundings to see if you are in any danger should the situation get out of hand. Plan an escape route, if needed.

As assessors, we have to weigh and judge each situation as it happens. It seems to be a gift or something you acquire during the beginning years in the profession. A book that I read last year covers a number of situations and how we deal with them. It's titled "The Gift of Fear," written by Gavin DeBecker. I think most assessors instinctively have this gift and it's a good thing.

Throughout my assessing career, I have had to deal with confrontational people and, at times, confrontational animals. What follows is a collection of stories from my assessing career. Some of these events are recalled with a bit of humor, but it is important to note that confrontational situations should always be taken seriously.

* * * * *

Donna Hayes, my current business partner, and I had one of these confrontational situations just recently. Donna had been in a town office (in Western Maine) where she met with a taxpayer regarding an increase in value and explained why his land value nearly tripled in one year.

This was a case where the taxpayer, years before, had asked for a reduction on his lot because he contended it was unbuildable. The former assessors' agent had agreed and allowed extra depreciation for the topography and wet conditions.

During 1999, the taxpayer went before the planning board, got a building permit, and constructed a commercial garage on the property.

For the 2000 tax year, we removed the unbuildable depreciation, assessed the land as an improved building lot, and then applied a commercial factor since it was now a commercial business. The taxpayer applied for an abatement after his visit with Donna and we recommended to the board of assessors that they deny the request.

At the same time, we mailed a letter to the taxpayer explaining in writing what we had done and how we arrived at the new assessed value and we informed him that the matter would be taken up at the next board of assessors' meeting. We never heard another word until our next visit to the town for a meeting with the assessors. At that meeting, we were told that the taxpayer had been very irate during the board's meeting the previous week.

We found a copy of the local newspaper's account of that meeting. It provided the following:
Selectmen also heard a complaint from (a local) taxpayer about the evaluation of his property. "I take exception to two things," the taxpayer said. "One, she was not able to show me how she evaluated my property. Two, she told me to shut up. Now, I don't think her arrogant manner is what the town should pay for. I was so mad I could have killed her for two days!"

Anyone who knows Donna, knows that she would never tell a taxpayer to "shut up." Although untrue, we could have let this remark slide, but we were not going to passively let the statement "could have killed her for two days" go unchallenged.

At the next meeting of the town's board of assessors, we passed out the letter and abatement application. For the record, Donna stated to the board that she had not told the taxpayer to "shut up." She expressed serious concerns to the board about the taxpayer's use of the words "could have killed her for two days."

An article in the next day's newspaper contained an apology from the taxpayer for the published statements that he said "were made out of anger." While this event ended without further confrontations, statements like these are always on your mind when an angry taxpayer comes into your office.

* * * * *

In 1966, I was being trained on how to measure and list by Gerry Daigle (former assessor in Cape Elizabeth) of Cole-Layer-Trumble in Needham, Massachusetts. We were doing this five room ranch owned by a rather elderly lady who told us not to go out back until she took her dog off his run and put him into the house. Little did we know that it was a huge German Shepherd who ended up pulling this lady all over the backyard trying to devour me and Gerry. We were able to escape, however the taxpayer had some serious rope burns from Brutus.

* * * * *

My first dealing with a goose was in Beverly, Massachusetts. The homeowner said, "Oh, by the way watch out for the goose in the backyard because she becomes rather aggressive when challenged in her space." Aggressive… I'll say! That goose chased me all over the backyard before I finally made it to my car. I didn't escape unscathed. I ended up with a big black-and-blue mark on my calf where the goose got hold of my leg with her beak while I was back-stepping to my car.

* * * * *

One time years ago, in the town of Bremen, the harbor master took me and the board of assessors out to an island to review an account under appeal. I showed up on Saturday morning in my typical attire of shirt, tie, clipboard, camera, tape, and pencils. The harbor master looked me up and down, sat back next to the outboard and says, "You know Sonny, the last time I took anybody out here with a tie on they hung him with it." I knew he was just kidding, but it set the tone for the rest of the day.

* * * * *

In the early 1970's, Gerry Daigle, Bruce Taylor and I were doing pick up or maintenance in a number of towns, including one in York County. This was after the three of us had left CLT. I happened to review and list this taxpayer's house and in the process of doing the inspection asked if he had an attic. Little did I know that this had been an issue with the town for a number of years. The taxpayer went ballistic and said, "I don't have an attic and the next person who asks me if I do have an attic I'm going to throw them right through the "blankety-blank" ceiling to show him what's up there!"

Thinking we would play a joke on Bruce, who didn't know about this situation either, Gerry and I sent him back to the person's house and ask him to specifically ask the guy about his attic. When we got together that afternoon, Bruce said "Wow!!! Did you guys know that the guy with the attic threatened to shoot me if I didn't get off his property?" Gerry and I look at each other and recognized the seriousness of our joking. This was the last time we ever knowingly sent anyone into a potentially dangerous situation.

* * * * *

While conducting a revaluation in one of our northern Kennebec County towns, we met a man sitting on a stone wall having a cup of coffee. He was at the beginning of a five-mile stretch of road leading into a remote mountainous area. We told him that we had heard that he had a dwelling off this road and that we needed to place a value on it for assessment purposes. He said, "Don't bother, I'm going to burn it down!"

I don't know how many of you ever worked on a revaluation project in a real backwoods area. If you have, then you know that the inspection, listing, photo opportunity and final conclusion of value all take place during one visit, and you gather everything you can during that visit because you don't want to have to go back!

This man did in fact burn his house down, and we were told by a neighbor that we should never confront him as he always carried a concealed weapon, without a permit. Since that time he has rebuilt in the same area, according to snowmobilers and people who fly over in planes. The problem now is that he has five warrants out for his arrest and the state police are having trouble finding him on the mountain. The story ends with us "sound valuing" his new structure for tax purposes He hasn't paid the taxes, but we have no desire to confront this person on "his property."

* * * * *

When conducting a revaluation project, our policy has always been to drive down every road regardless of what we've been told is or is not there. From a professional standpoint, we believe it is necessary for the entire town to be physically inspected.

Well, in the mid-1990's, while driving on this winding dirt road, we began to smell a strange, yet not unfamiliar, scent in the air. (I had served a year in Vietnam during 1964-65 and I know what marijuana smells like). The farther we drove into the woods and fields of this property, the more I thought about our presence and attire. We were driving along in this clean, black sports utility vehicle and here I was with a white shirt and tie, and Donna looking very professional with a clip board and taking notes. A light bulb came on for both of us and we thought, "Do we look like assessors agents or drug enforcement agents?" All of a sudden we stopped, looked at each other, found a spot to turn around and left in a very expedient manner, while listing the property as vacant!

* * * * *

While performing another revaluation, we went down what looked like a dirt road to nowhere only to find a dwelling of very poor quality which had never been assessed. We proceeded to the door and knocked to announce ourselves and to tell the taxpayer what we were doing. A gentleman meets us at the door, with rifle, and tells us to get off his property in very specific terms that no one would misunderstand. Needless to say, he did not want us on his property and we quickly took his advice.

After getting back to the main road, we discussed what we should do, and our conclusion was that his property was worth at least $10,000. A tax bill was sent; he met with the board of selectmen; and they discussed the problems encountered in inspecting his property and the remarks (which we had noted) that he made during the inspection. He paid the bill and invited us back the next year to review his dwelling.

When you choose to be an assessor, you place yourself before the public, the press and all who may want to take issue with what you present or say.

Each of us has to determine what level of exposure or pressure we want to place on ourselves. You have to make conscious decisions as to whether or not it is worth the individual sacrifice that will be required to fulfill your task.

My advice: know when to talk, know when to walk, and know when to run. Then, you will be in the best position to serve your community's needs.