Rockport Assessor Comes Full Circle

(from Maine Townsman, February 2008)
Liz Chapman Mockler, Freelance Writer

Judy Mathiau had no idea she wanted to be a municipal tax assessor when she applied for a clerk’s job in St. George more than 20 years ago.

By the time the job opened in 1986, Mathiau had already operated her own graphic design business, working part-time for Downeast magazine and the Camden Herald weekly newspaper.

She then spent three years managing the Dip Net café, a popular hangout for fishermen and other mariners in her hometown of Port Clyde.

She had wanted to work full-time on her design art, but she didn’t see that happening any time soon. She wanted more. She wanted a career.

“I frankly didn’t know what I wanted to do, other than the art, and I didn’t see how that would be enough for me,” she recalled during a recent interview in her modest and tidy office in Rockport.

“When I applied for the clerk’s job (in St. George), I had absolutely no idea what it was, what it meant,” she said. “The only time I went to the town office was to get a fishing license.”

But the uncertainty evaporated like sea smoke the first time she opened one of the town’s tax maps. The graphic artist in her loved the visual impact of the property layouts and was immediately smitten. She liked math and she liked interacting with people. She thought perhaps she had finally found her calling.

“As soon as I opened the maps ... it all sort of came together,” she said.

On the job

Although Mathiau was hired as an assessor’s clerk, she soon began taking on more and more duties for the Board of Assessors. And the more she did, the more she wanted to do.

The desire to dig deeper and learn more would become a trademark of her municipal career.

She asked the St. George assessors, who also were selectmen, of the town of 2,600, if she could take classes to get certified as an assessing tech. They agreed, but just as she earned her certification the town restructured and eliminated the clerk’s job in favor of an outside assessing firm.

Undeterred, Mathiau spent the next two years working part-time for the towns of Union and South Thomaston, learning by doing and watching for the right job in the right town to open.

In early 1993, it did when the Rockport selectmen advertised for an assessor.

“You have to sit back and wait for a nice town to come open,” she said.

Although Mathiau had not yet been certified, she was hired on the condition she would earn her assessor’s certification within the first year. The test was not easy, she said, and she took it more than once, but she reached her goal in August of 1993.

“Those (early) years (in Rockport) were solid,” she said. “I loved it. I loved the job. It was just good solid ground.”

During her time there, she began teaching classes and holding workshops, taking a special interest in improving communication, both among Maine assessors and between assessors and the public.

“I’ve learned so much from other assessors and from working on the job,” Mathiau said. “You can go in there and pass the (assessor’s) test the first time. Good for you. But I’m telling you, you have to get the experience and understand local government.”

Making a move

Mathiau took the job as Camden assessor in 2000, partly because of the higher salary, and partly for the challenge of a new community. She worried, though, that “I kept getting farther and farther from Port Clyde.”

That same year, Mathiau’s father died and her mother asked Mathiau’s family move to Vassalboro to live with her in the family’s homestead  – a sprawling farmhouse built by her father’s great-grandfather.

Her husband, Rick, a sea captain, took the plunge and quickly loved the land, complete with rock walls and rose bushes and vegetable gardens. “He couldn’t have a boat, so we bought him a tractor,” she said with a grin.

Mathiau said she enjoyed her municipal work in Camden, and built a good relationship with residents and selectmen. She liked the hands-on work of going out in the field, and she loved taking questions and helping taxpayers better understand property values and taxes.

Her career took a dramatic turn in 2003 when she took the job of state property appraiser on the hope she could help city and town assessors “from the other side of the table.”

The job was overwhelming at times, Mathiau said. Part of her work involved traveling around Maine with David Ledew, director of the state property tax division. They met with municipal officials, many of them selectmen, to help them understand state valuations and other complex matters.

“She really jumped into the job,” Ledew said in a recent interview, “and for only being here (three) years, she really left her mark.”

Mathiau brought many attributes to the work, Ledew added, “but most of all, she was a doer. She didn’t just talk about it. She did it.”

In her travels around Maine, Mathiau said she quickly realized that neither taxpayers nor many small town officials understood the assessing process. She doesn’t fault them; it’s not an easy subject no matter how hard you try to explain it, she said.

She recalled visiting a small town and being amazed to learn that the three-person Board of Selectmen/Assessors had done a revaluation by driving around town and deciding house values by looks and lots.

Mathiau said the assessors had established just three property values in their drive-by assessment – $25,000, $100,00 and $200,000. “Oh my God,” Mathiau remembered thinking at the time.

“It was so demanding, it was unbelievable,” Mathiau said, “but I wouldn’t trade my three years with the state. I learned to become more resourceful, I learned the (state) Constitution and how and why the (assessing) laws were developed – and so much more.”

She added,  “But I became further removed from assessing. There was an overpowering home-sickness” for municipal work. It didn’t help that Camden property taxpayers were still calling her, either.

And then her old job in Rockport opened back up.

Back to Rockport

“It was a sad day when Judy left,” Ledew said. “We were much better off for the (few) years she spent here.”

Mathiau said some people “questioned my good sense” when they learned she was returning to Rockport in 2006. Not only would she return to a long daily commute, she would be taking over just after a town-wide revaluation.

But for Mathiau, it was a welcome return to local assessing, and a reunion with the friends she had missed since leaving the town office years before.

The work of finishing up the reval and resolving lingering issues took a full year, Mathiau said. The town now updates property values annually, which helps reduce the angst of taxpayers and the stress on town officials.

Mathiau still looks for a new challenge, but has found plenty to keep her busy in Rockport. She remains focused on public education, including uploading all of the town’s tax assessment records to the town’s Web site. That move alone, she said, has given her the time she needs to keep records updated, work out problems with property owners, develop new systems, and work on developing regional workshops for residents and business owners.

On March 5, for example, the assessors of Camden and Rockland will join Mathiau and a state property tax expert to sponsor a workshop on the new Business Equipment Tax Exemption (BETE) and the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement (BETR) programs.

Mathiau said she has never regretted returning to Rockport and feels blessed to work on the coast of Maine and live on the land in her childhood home.

“I really have come full circle,” she said.