Vermont’s citizen listers giving way to professional appraisers

town meeting

Jamaica announced a town meeting agenda item to replace its citizen listers with professional assessors, only to pass over it Tuesday. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When local leaders in Cornwall learned the two citizens who maintain the municipality’s property grand list would stop doing so this month, they realized the move “will leave the town without listers for the first time in decades (if ever).”

“The Selectboard has the responsibility of seeing that their work gets done, either by hiring a professional appraiser,” members wrote in their annual report, “or by appointing three new listers to fill the vacant spots.”

But with no residents volunteering for the task before this month’s town meeting, leaders found themselves eyeing the same ballot question facing a growing number of communities: “Shall the town vote to authorize the elimination of the office of lister and replace it with a professionally qualified assessor?”

“It’s getting harder and harder to find listers,” said Wallingford Town Clerk Julie Sharon, whose municipality voted Tuesday to support the switch. “There’s a lot to it.”

Just ask Fairfax resident Patricia McNall, who has done the job for years.

“The listers are responsible for performing all town property assessments,” McNall wrote in her town’s annual report. “They update and maintain the value of real property in the town on which the Selectboard will set a tax rate necessary to raise the money to pay for town services, maintenance, town roads and schools.”

In Fairfax, that meant reviewing 65 projects over the past year: 21 new houses, two duplexes, four detached garages, eight additions and finished areas, 10 sheds, and 20 barns, porches and decks.

listers

Several town meeting agendas this year featured articles calling for replacing citizen listers with professionals. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“We also have ongoing routine work,” McNall continued, “such as finishing up prior-year permits as they are good for two years, homestead declarations, current use, veteran exemptions and property transfers.”

But just as Fairfax was set to start a townwide reappraisal, two of its three listers resigned last fall.

“The job has gotten more complex,” McNall said, “and it is time consuming to train new listers.”

And so Fairfax voted 407 to 308 Tuesday to hire a professional assessor. The community wasn’t alone in doing so this town meeting season: Concord approved the change 114 to 96, while Dorset, facing retirement of two of its three listers, did the same, 273 to 59.

Listers aren’t the only endangered species of local officeholders in Vermont. Municipalities are replacing their citizen auditors with certified public accountants because of a similar difficulty finding people willing to tackle an increasingly complicated job.

Then again, some towns are working to uphold tradition. Fayston dedicated its annual report to longtime listers Tony Egan, Gussie Graves and Fred Spencer, “who together, have dedicated over 90 years of service to our town.” (Graves, who’s retiring, accounts for 42 of those years.)

Jamaica announced an agenda item to eliminate the position, only to decline to take up the question Tuesday.

“I think the town feels strongly about having appraisals done with local people who are familiar with the properties,” local lister Barbara Ferguson said. “It’s a difficult but important job.”

And Cornwall, having calculated it would need to spend $10,000 for professional appraisers, welcomed a handful of last-minute volunteers.

“For now we’re hanging on to the position,” Town Clerk Sue Johnson said. “We are very happy to have found people who have an interest.”

Kevin O'Connor

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  • Adrienne Raymond

    It would be very helpful to other towns to have running updates on how the towns who are mentioned in this article are fairing with their new system. Number of grievances, how the assessor inertacts with other town officials, and of cource the end budget result, etc.

  • Peter Chick

    Seems like when the town wants to raise taxes all they need to do is reassess. Many people do not have time or energy to fight every time.

  • Casey Jennings

    We could eliminate all of this mess and the regressive tax that requires it if we simply replaced the property tax with the income tax. Since we’re already all filing income taxes and it’s not subject to the inequalities created by the subjectivity of property evaluation.

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