Q&A with retired town assessor Rex Norman
Rex Norman is a valuation consultant and provides mediation services primarily to municipalities and private industry. He retired in December 2014 after 15 years as the town of Windham’s assessor, and was the commercial appraiser in Nashua for five years before that.
Appointed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in 2000 as a founding member of the NH Assessing Standards Board, he is past president of the NH Association of Assessing Officials and is an active member of the International Association of Assessing Officers.
An accomplished sailor and gentleman farmer, Norman lives with his wife Cheri and their daughter in Windham.
Q. How has assessing changed over the years?
A. State law says selectmen are the governing body to assign assessments on property. Back in the day, that meant that selectmen would drive around in their vehicles, look at property and make some determinations on what they saw. Today, of course, selectmen typically hire a professional appraiser – an assessor. The professional appraiser has years of experience, continuing coursework in education, and it’s a lot more detailed using modern mathematics.
Q. When did assessing change to a more reliable method?
A. It really started occurring in the 1980s when appraisers were needed for a considerable amount of property transaction activity and banks were requiring appraisals on every loan. Towns were realizing that they needed that level of expertise as well.
Q. I’m guessing assessment can lead to a fair number of disputes.
A. The challenges are that you know you’re not going to make everybody happy. If you did make everybody happy, you probably wouldn’t be in that job long, meaning that you have to make some determinations when you set a value. Someone’s going to have to pay taxes on that value, and of course not everyone likes to pay taxes.
Q. What happens when a dispute ends up in the courtroom?
A. Today, in most cases, the assessor will represent the town as their expert in the valuation. In most cases, larger communities can afford to have a full-time assessor, and that assessor is well-trained and versed in disputes, abatements and that type of thing.
Q. How important is transparency in the valuation process?
A. One thing I’ve seen, certainly the last several years and decade, is the availability of the Internet and all the information you can put out there for the public. What that does is actually opens up the books, if you will, of assessing, for the public. I found the more information you can put online, and the more information that the taxpayers can look at, the more comfortable they feel. They understand they’ll be able to compare theirs with others and they can look at the methodology of how you formed those assessments.
Q. Are there more disputes in commercial or residential assessments?
A. It depends. Typically, you’ve got more residential property owners, so the percentage would be a little higher. Commercial tends to have more at stake. The taxes are much higher and commercial property owners with deeper pockets can afford representation.
Q. How is technology changing the ways assessors do their jobs?
A. Thirty years ago, it was done on a card stock, which is where the term “property record card” actually came from. Assessors would draw sketches of the property and then do their mathematical calculations on this property record card. All of the information that they collected on a particular property was contained on this card, in pencil in most cases.
Now, when you go into various town halls, you ask for the property record card, you see erasures on that card, and in the back of your mind you wonder: Was the erasure done by the assessor or was it done by somebody maybe with some ill intent, to change the value of the property and change the size or some other notation?
What’s changed is automation, certainly with computers. For instance, the town of Windham went to computers in 1995 and automated their entire assessment system so that you would be printing the property record card. Now it’s on paper. The mathematical formulas that were used back in the day were done by hand, and each property would be appraised by multiplying on a calculator.
Of course, with automation now, you can create models, and apply that to property across the board. What used to take a year to make changes, can take just a few weeks, and even a few days or a day if you’re just making a change to a class of property.
I can share a funny story with automation. We use our tax maps, which are drawn on computer. Their sketches are shown in what’s called a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) layer, with multiple layers. I remember asking a town assessor for a map, showing a parcel, and he said he’d have to get back to me. He did. He drew it on a paper and actually that was how he drew the maps for the town – hand-drew the shapes of the properties on drafting paper. The reliability of that (makes) you wonder.
Q. You’re involved in a project using laser technology that could become a game changer in capturing accurate property information for assessing purposes.
A. One of the most exciting innovations that I’ve seen is a technology called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). It’s a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of pulsed laser to measure ranges, variable distances to any object.
3D Data Ltd., of Quincy, Mass., just started about a year ago testing their prototype and they chose a number of communities. Windham was one of them. It effectively is a measuring tool that assessors can take to a property and it’ll measure and draw in three dimensions the property that they’re looking at. Then they’ll provide, as output, a two-dimensional sketch, which is accurate to less than a foot.
Just to give you an example: The time it takes to measure a property has been unchanged in decades, until this type of device. The time is so costly. You’ve got to go out to measure a property typically using a tape measure. You might be using a roller wheel. You might use some other method, but it is definitely time-consuming. With this measuring device, it cuts the time down quickly to as simply as you can walk around a property. And it captures the property in three-dimensional detail. They have an image that they can rotate on the computer with a print out of a two-dimensional image.
Q. Where does this product stand today?
A. They’re actually contracting already with revaluation companies that are taking this device into the field and are bidding the cost to do these jobs, based on the fact that they’re going to save an incredible amount of time.
This product will help reduce the cost to a municipality, is going to save taxpayers money.
Q. Having just left as Windham’s assessor in December, how are you taking your skill sets and staying in the game?
A. With my years of experience, I’m able to streamline some of the processes when it comes to especially mediation work. I can review and see things, errors perhaps in appraisals and be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different people’s positions when it comes to value in an unbiased way. And back to municipalities, perhaps they don’t have the assessor with the credentials that are of my caliber. It’s probably cheaper for a municipality to contract out for a few hours or few days a week [for] someone of my level without having to hire and train and maintain their educational background.