A couple of years ago, Lincoln Township was in search for a new assessor for the first time in 19 years.
Barbara Cheek announced she would be retiring in 2016 and the township ran an advertisement for three months with the Michigan Assessors Association’s publication and other government circulations.
At the time, Supervisor Dick Stauffer acknowledged how difficult it can be to find someone with the certification level the township needs in an assessor.
However, the township was lucky in its search when John Baumann applied for the position in 2016. The reason the township struck gold with Baumann was because of how young he is.
Today, the 37-year-old is one of the youngest assessors in Berrien County and recently received the needed certification for his jurisdiction.
Among the biggest hurdles municipalities face in finding qualified assessors is how difficult the certification process has become, the number of assessors in the workforce and a salary that doesn’t seem to be increasing in what is a niche profession.
This has created a looming problem that Berrien County and the rest of the state will have to address within the next decade.
“I can see there being an assessor shortage in the next 10 years,” said Baumann, who regularly attends Berrien County Assessor Association meetings. “The average age of people at these meetings is over 55. You’re going to see a lot of assessors retiring or nearing retirement.”
An assessor’s main role is to estimate the value of real property within a municipality’s boundaries. Baumann, who has a full-time position with Lincoln Township, said his main focus is to maintain equity in real estate taxing.
“I’m biased, but my profession is very important,” Baumann said. “We touch so many different departments. We do all the tax stuff in setting values. If an abatement comes through, we’re doing a lot of the work with the business. We also work hand-in-hand with the building department.”
His entry into the profession was unorthodox. But the same can be said for most assessors.
Shortly after graduating college, Baumann began his assessing career as a data collector for an appraisal company in 2009. This was odd since Baumann majored in history.
“It’s completely weird,” he said. “I wanted to teach, but then I sort of fell out of it. My time spent with data collecting encouraged me to get my master’s in business.”
Baumann said he loves the math portion of the job where he sets the values for houses and tracks what homes are selling for in his jurisdiction.
“The hard part with assessing is you fall into this field,” Baumann said. “So, becoming an assessor comes through experiences in the field. ... (At Lincoln) we’re a one-man office and you can’t bring people up, so it’s hard to jump into the profession.”
Paula Jastifer can relate to this.
Jastifer, president of the Michigan Assessors Association, is also the deputy city assessor for the city of Grand Rapids.
She majored in political science with a minor in teaching. She worked at an appraisal company while she finished her student teaching. Because she graduated in December, midway through a school year, when teachers weren’t being hired.
So she went back to work for the appraisal company, and the rest is history.
“It was by accident,” Jastifer said. “Assessing is very technical. You have to change communities and people don’t like to move. If you’re in a small city or township, you can only go so far until you have to relocate.”
A missing carrot
Anthony Meyaard is familiar with the problem that has begun to take shape across the state.
“We hear it all the time. People have trouble finding new assessors,” said Meyaard, who is the equalization director for Berrien, Van Buren, Ionia and Arenac counties. “That’s why contracting is becoming a more popular option. You have large municipalities like the city of Portage that could not find a Level IV assessor willing to come there full time. The city of Kalamazoo is doing the same thing.”
As the equalization director for Berrien, Meyaard interacts with all assessors. He regularly teaches a statistics class, which is required for incoming assessors for the advanced level certification.
As part of his statistics class, Meyaard visits other classes for the entry-level assessors and collects their ages.
Having done this exercise for the past four years, Meyaard said the average age for incoming assessors is 41 years old. He acknowledges that it is bizarre how many people make career-altering changes at that age.
“The ages range from 18 to 79 years old,” Meyaard said, when asked about outliers. “We had one class where a new assessor was 79 years old. There are very few 18-year-olds who are training for this.”
Meyaard began his career in assessing/equalization when he was 19. He was 31 years old when he got his master-level certification.
Assessor salaries tend to be a big talking point within the state. But it’s also hard to truly identify an average salary for the profession.
“You have a situation where a lot of assessors will contract with smaller local units who don’t need a full-time assessor,” Meyaard said. “They’ll get multiple contracts and that’s how they make their money. That’s hard to determine what their average salary is. With regular full-time assessors, the pay is probably going to be between $50,000 to $65,000 on the west side of the state.”
Through conversations she’s had with MAA members, Jastifer said she has noticed how static assessor salaries have become over the past decade.
“It’s hard to attract people into the profession knowing that their salaries aren’t increasing,” she said. “Communities are asking all departments to do more with less revenue.”
Meyaard said the job’s benefits used to be a big draw – similar to other government positions. But even that has decreased.
“This problem is not isolated to just assessing. If you look back 10 or 20 years ago, people worked for municipalities for the benefits,” he said. “The packages have come more in line with other industries.
“So, that really big carrot we had before isn’t there anymore.”
Another hurdle assessors face is the certification process.
The needed level of certification for an assessor is determined by the assessed value and how much commercial property is in a municipality.
In Berrien County, Lake Township’s assessor needs the highest certification available in the state because it has the Cook Nuclear Power Plant to keep track of.
The state’s certification levels are broken down into four tiers.
The highest and most difficult level to achieve is becoming a Michigan Master Assessing Official (MMAO – Level IV). Next is a Michigan Advanced Assessing Officer (MAAO – Level III), which Baumann had to get to be Lincoln’s assessor. Below that is a Michigan Certified Assessing Official (MCAO – Level II) and a Michigan Certified Assessing Technician (MCAT – Level I).
Among the 1,800 assessors in Michigan, only 140 have the Level IV certification.
It took Meyaard a year to attain his Level IV certification. He was tasked with writing a narrative demonstration appraisal report that was more than 600 pages.
“It’s a huge commitment. I was spending 20 hours a week writing it,” Meyaard said. “It’s intense, but the state just changed their requirements to get the master level. Now you do a year-long course that covers three classes. They have to write an appraisal, but not a narrative demonstration.”
Since the State Tax Commission took over the certification process, Jastifer said there are more exemptions and paperwork for assessors to learn.
“The commission tweaks it now and then,” she said. “I think they’ve had two or three overhauls, but they’re trying to improve it.”
Benton Township had two other licensed assessors on staff to choose from when Toni Swisher left this summer to work for Chikaming Township. So, they chose to hire in-house rather than look in the open market.
However, township trustees were forced to hire Swisher on a contractual basis while another employee took classes for Level III certification.
Benton Township Superintendent Kelli Smith said the certification classes have been rigorous, as their assessor is doing the class work in addition to her regular job.
“Like many professions, we’re seeing stricter assessing requirements,” Smith said. “(The state) is really looking at the assessors under heavy scrutiny. That’s challenging for the people who have been in this career for a long period of time. But at the same time, it’s a very technical field.”
Jastifer said she agrees with the amount of certification the State Tax Commission requires.
However, Jastifer said it’s the way the material is being taught that can be cumbersome.
“We’re frustrated because we’re teaching courses on behalf of the Tax Commission, but we can’t continue with smaller class sizes,” she said. “If you’re not enrolled in the state’s program you cannot take any classes. I would say the exam requirements aren’t a barrier. It’s good for the industry, but sometimes there’s confusion on the material.”
Assessors are students by nature. Therefore it would make sense to recruit students into the profession.
Meyaard, also a member of the MAA, said one of the organization’s objectives is to reach out to younger generations looking at assessing as a career.
“One of our board members is proposing we go to school functions for ninth-graders looking at different careers,” he said. “We looked at a job fair at local colleges so the industry can get some exposure.”
The State Tax Commission also has begun encouraging individuals to consider assessing.
Among its efforts, the commission has reduced costs, offered additional paths to certification, provided online continuing education courses, performed statewide trainings to local officials, and partnered with organizations to offer certification courses.
A commission spokesman said they’ve also revamped the way it informs individuals and communities about assessing training sessions through email marketing, social media, statewide trainings and conferences.
Jastifer said she wants more people to know how beneficial an assessor can be.
She regularly works with the community through measuring and inspecting buildings. Jastifer said the job is perfect for her because she doesn’t always like to sit at a desk. Jastifer said she loves helping property owners.
When assessors do their jobs correctly, they tend to fly under the radar.
“Assessing administration is like housekeeping. It’s only noticeable if it’s not done well,” she joked. “Our job is to build trust in the community.”
Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski