Why good local government matters

To the editor:

I have been watching with growing amused detachment the travails of the Town of St Johnsbury as it struggles with the changes it is going through as it is being reinvented in the image of the current leadership. This road has been long, and mostly downhill. This is symbolic of combined currents of knee jerk "taxes are bad therefore people who are paid by taxes are bad" and a general malevolence, based in spite perhaps, toward government at all levels.

Taxpayers are entitled to efficient government, as with anything we pay for phone, cable, insurance. The people who are being paid to do the work of local government, are, or should be competent and able to do the tasks they are assigned. Local government employees are really no different than any other professionals. You may have a general understanding of what your accountant does, or your insurance agent, but would you feel comfortable walking into their office and firing everyone in sight without a clear understanding of what they actually do all day? What processes or tools that they use to do what they do? What training specific to these tasks are needed? Or what regulatory constraints, from the Federal Government, all the way down to local ordinances that govern what they do? And then expect that the work that they did, now given over to much less qualified people, to be done efficiently and effectively?

This is what has been done to the Town of St Johnsbury. Hard working dedicated professionals, were maligned, investigated and trashed publicly by "concerned citizens." Who, as far as I could tell offered no evidence to support their claims of scandal and petty intrigue. Nor were these same people asked to provide what would pass for evidence by the majority of the select board. What experience in municipal government did these people bring to these allegations? What do they know about municipal accounting practices, about the assessors' position and what it entails? No one ever asked me what I did all day, (hint, it wasn't making up numbers out of the blue). Does it strike anyone as odd that after a three-year investigation into a former employee, that the chair of the select board is 'disappointed' that he wasn't a crook?

I am incredibly proud of the work that I did for St Johnsbury. I took the Assessors position very seriously and I asked that I be taken seriously. At grievance I was upfront about being given relevant evidence from appellants to justify their opinion of the value of the properties in question. If I could defend the value, based on the data that had been generated during the reappraisal process I did. If I was shown to be in error, based on RELEVANT and RATIONAL arguments, I reduced values to a more equitable level for the taxpayer.

But some concerned citizens were unwilling, unable, or too caught up in their new-found political power to make an argument based on data. They insisted that I uphold their sense of entitlement. These same fact free concerned citizens and their enablers on the select board brought grievances to me that included NO evidence for what they felt was the appropriate number, in one case not even a number, only saying that they felt it should be valued "the way it should be used" not the way it is still being advertised for sale. Others came in with only a number, often a completely absurd one. Would you walk into your accountants' office and make stuff up and expect them to take it at face value?

In at least one case thousands of taxpayer dollars went into legal fees and outside appraisals of the subject property. A settlement was reached that expired in 2012. After the agreement date expired, the value was reduced again. By normal appraisal standards it should have increased, as additional construction occurred in the interim. I'm not suggesting anything illegal, but it may be something that should be "looked into."

That investigation should also include a thorough review of how the town is currently managing its grand list activities. The most important task for a town to manage and understand is the Grand List. Think of it as the towns sales force, the people you would hire to bring in revenue. Who is currently in charge of the Grand List? The contract assessor or the appointed board of listers? The listers sign the grand list when it is lodged, and as far as I can tell defend it at grievances. Do they review changes that are made outside of the grievance process? Does the assessor have a say in the changes made by the board of Listers? Are the listers aware of all of the sales and transactions that are used to establish values? If the first two lines for appeal are appointed by the select board, does that allow for independent action of either?

I am a fierce advocate for professionalizing the Lister and Assessor function in any town. It is a demanding, interesting and ultimately thankless job, but it is important. That costs money. That money needs to be spent, St. Johnsbury taxpayers should demand a qualified Assessor. To do that your town manager needs to have the knowledge and experience needed to make that decision. You are asking someone to manage millions of dollars worth of revenue for your town, and all that St J is willing to pay is $25k a year? Is that amount of money enough to get people who are qualified? Does the select board have a sense of what qualified means, and should they be making these staffing decisions?

In parting, that "concerned citizen" who insisted that I was unqualified has had their assessed value reduced as well. Selectman Rust started the day to day running of the town when Mike Welch left, not when Ralph left. Poor Ralph Nelson, (who it has recently occurred to to Selectman Timson, maybe wasn't as qualified as he could have been), he was perfectly qualified: to do as he was told. If only he'd turned over the list of people to be removed he would have seen his own name at the top of the next page.

Good luck to you all at town meeting.

Peter Whitney

East Burke, Vt.

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