By Julie McCay Turner
At Town Meeting in March 2018, the Board of Assessors acknowledged a failure to set Bedford’s tax rate in a timely manner, resulting in late property tax bills. The Assessors went on to say that they would request an assessment review by the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services (DLS).
The findings of that review were presented to a combined meeting of the Assessors and the Selectmen on Wednesday, November 7. Present to discuss the review and its recommendations were Zach Blake, Chief, Technical Assistance Bureau; Joanne Graziano, Chief, Bureau of Local Assessment, Andrew Nelson, Chief in the Bureau of Accounts and his assistant Amy Handfield from the Worcester office; and Scott Santangelo, Regional Supervisor, Bureau of Local Assistance.
Blake opened the presentation, noting that Bedford’s reputation as a well-managed town is a strength to build on as the Town Manager and Selectmen address changes in the Assessing Department. Specifically, he cited prudent financial practices, a AAA bond rating, and an annual certification of achievement for excellence in financial reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association.
The evening’s presentation was not “a forensic summary” of the circumstances behind the missed deadline, Blake noted, but would instead look forward offering “guidance for establishing clearer reporting relationships and [a means for] holding personnel accountable for carrying out their statutory responsibilities and best practices.”
Chief among the DCL’s recommendations is moving Bedford’s assessing office under the control of the Town Manager, in a consolidated Finance function.
Physically relocating the department from its current basement office to the second-floor financial office is expected to improve communication and facilitate oversight. The move will also bring the Town’s financial functions under coordinated management in a unified space. Bedford’s IT department is expected to move to the current assessing office.
According to the minutes of its October 17 meeting, the Board of Assessors ceded temporary, day-to day oversight of Bedford’s Assessing Office to the Town Manager in a 3-0-0 vote.
Multiple communities have found that a consolidated finance and assessing office works well. Bedford is researching the specific ways in which the new structure will be implemented, whether through a full Charter change, or a simpler solution. In either case, the process is expected to be transparent and well-documented.
Additional DoR Recommendations
A recommendation to establish annual goals and objectives will assure common purpose, and regular financial team meetings will assure fuller communication.
An Assessing Department calendar will set benchmarks to be met throughout the year. Beginning in January, the assessing office should update property data, analyze market changes, and update valuation schedules. Prior fiscal year abatement and exemption applications should be completed in April. At the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, assessed valuations should be finalized. Valuations are submitted and new growth is reported in September in order to decide classification options in the tax recapitulation report (the recap) that is sent to DLS for certification of the annual tax rate. The current fiscal year tax rate should be set by December, prior to sending third quarter tax bills to residents and businesses.
And .. .. ..
Bedford’s 2019 classification hearing has been set for November 19, 2018.
Bruce Murphy, Chair of the Assessors, thanked Sarah Stanton for fully engaging in the assessor’s project during her first month as Bedford’s Town Manager. He added that in his view, acting as an ‘Administrative Judge’ in tax abatement hearings is the Board’s most important function, and this administrative restructuring will allow the Board of Assessors more clarity in making abatement decisions.
Stanton noted that the Director of Assessing has been placed on administrative leave,” but personnel details will be discussed and decided in Executive Session. A review of the Director of Assessing’s job description will be undertaken before posting the new position within a month or six weeks. Bedford offers the right person an unparalleled opportunity to work in a community with diverse taxable resources: biotech companies, personal property, residential, and retail properties.
Observing the meeting from the back of the room, Ben Thomas, chair of the Finance Committee, noted that FinCom has been aware of the situation in the assessing office, and stands ready to help the Board and Town Manager in whatever way it can. “Going forward I expect good things,” he said.