Belmont Voters To Decide Assessors Future As Town Meeting OKs Change To Appointed Board

Photo: Select Board Chair Roy Epstein

It will be up to Belmont voters to decide the future of the Board of Assessors when a special session of Town Meeting voted 156-87 with two abstentions to place a ballot question on this April’s annual Town Election to change the structure of the three-member board from an elected to an appointed body.

The vote, which took place virtually on Monday, Jan. 22, came nearly a year after a special Town Meeting voted 185-46 to change the town treasurer’s post to an appointed position, which town voters seconded in April 2023.

For Roy Epstein, chair of the Belmont Select Board, who shepherded the article through the public process and at the special town meeting, the article’s passage was a nod by the majority of Town Meeting Members on the willingness of town government to employ town resources to improve the town’s fiscal future.

“I would like to think people responded a little bit to what I said, but in a large sense, the vote was an expression of competence in the town administrator [Patrice Garvin],” said Epstein a day after the meeting. “It’s a vote of confidence of policy changes that the town will value and improve governance. That’s what people are looking for. And I think [Garvin] has been incredibly thorough in identifying ways to improve how government works, and I’m glad people are recognizing that.”

Supporters of the article were willing to agree that while there is a consensus the current assessors “operate at a very high standard” in determining the value of the real estate in town, said Epstein, there is an increasing need for the board to become a partner in the finance team – which includes the town’s appointed treasurer, the financial director, the town accountant and – that sets the town’s fiscal policy. The select board and town officials point to areas such as creating a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program and assisting in significant changes to the town’s zoning map in which the assessors’ knowledge and data will be the final critical piece in formulating “a more cohesive, collaborative working finance team,” said Garvin.

The select board or town officials expressed little confidence the current elected assessors are willing to support the town’s requests as both Epstein and fellow Select Board member Elizabeth Dionne each voiced their disappointment with the board’s response to numerous requests – such as establishing senior tax relief – from town committees and the board which were allowed to die on the vine.

“It didn’t happen and after four years of trying to make [senior tax relief] because it is a tax policy question. I just don’t think the collaboration between the Board of Assessors and the Select Board in the current form is working out. My view at this point is that there are better prospects for that type of coordination between different parts of town government if the board of assessors became appointed rather than elected, and that’s my principal reason for supporting the article in its current form,” said Epstein.

The Assessors’ long-time chair, Robert Reardon, defended the elected board in its current form since the town’s incorporation in 1859, calling it “an important aspect of checks and balances” in town finances with the prime role of the assessors “to set the [real estate] values independent of the budget process.”

While the assessors answer questions at public meetings and work with the town and committees on several fiscal areas, Reardon said the board rarely ventures beyond their core responsibilities of appraising real estate, deciding to grant or deny abatements, and voting on exemptions based on the person – such as seniors or disabled veterans – who owns the property. It has not expanded its reach into town fiscal policy due to state directives from the Department of Revenue.

“We don’t make policy,” said Reardon. “We have to take an oath to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and that oath is to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And by doing so … we’re limited on what we can do. We cannot implement any new tax policies in the town without the approval of the state legislature.”

Reardon also said that an elected board of residents “shows a commitment and a dedication by the candidates to serve the town,” which would be lacking by an appointed body that doesn’t have a residence requirement.

For most of the meeting, Town Moderator Mike Widmer successfully limited the debate to changing the board’s structure rather than discussing how either variation would alter town policies or finances.

Cosmo Macero from Precinct 5 said he would vote against the article as “there is accountability in elections … and being an elected official.” As for the lack of collaboration with town boards and elected officials, “it’s possible that the Select Board may need to look elsewhere as to what the problem was with the collaboration.”

“As a non-policy making body, I want them to only collaborate a little on policy. I want them to perform their very important duty which is to measure and assess the value of our property for the purpose of tax information,” said Macero.

Angus Abercrombie, Precinct 8, who submitted the citizen’s petition to bring the article before Town Meeting, asked if changing the Town Treasurer to an appointed post had produced efficiencies in that department that could be replicated in the Assessors’ office. Garvin said Treasurer Lesley Davison’s experience and knowledge in the position have resulted in “finding efficiencies every day which will only benefit the residents of Belmont.”

“I believe, based on the town and [its] managerial structure, we will be able to implement efficiencies that have long been long wanted by the finance team,” said Garvin.

Ira Morgenstern, Precinct 7, advocated the belief first mentioned by Liz Allison, Precinct 3, at a public forum a week earlier: Don’t fix what’s not broken.

“It’s not needed,” said Morgenstern of the article. Calling the current board “a great team,” Morgenstern then suggested that a “yes” vote would be “a further concentration of power to the Select Board [who would have appointing powers] and the Town Administrator … while reduces the oversight and … our internal controls.”

But for Claus Becker, Precinct 5, giving the Select Board the final say in appointing the assessors’ is the correct step as residents voted for┬áthe three-member body to enact its vision of the town’s fiscal future.

And just like last year’s vote to make the Treasurer an appointed position, the tally wasn’t that close, with the “yes” category garnering 64 percent of members.

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