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Lawmaker says 3 years for tax assessors to get certified ‘doesn’t seem right’

BISMARCK — Giving county tax directors and top city assessors three years to get fully trained and certified while they continue to put values on people’s property for tax purposes “doesn’t seem right,” a member of a legislative committee said Wednesday.

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Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said during a meeting of the Legislature’s Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations that proper assessments are “at the very heart” of property tax bills.

“You can’t have a legitimate property tax bill if the assessing is not done correctly,” he said. “Yet … we allow assessors to work in the field for three years while they take their training to figure out how to do this job. Something doesn’t seem right there to me. I mean, can’t we make an improvement here?”

The 2013 Legislature directed the 12-member advisory commission to study, among other things, whether political subdivisions can become more efficient and effective to reduce costs to taxpayers.

As Cook made his comments at the Capitol, about 60 assessors were gathered at a Bismarck hotel for a weeklong training class, one of six such classes that county tax equalization directors and Class I city assessors are required to complete within three years of being appointed to their jobs to become certified, said Linda Leadbetter, state supervisor of assessments in the Office of State Tax Commissioner.

The Tax Department offers the classes twice a year. Classes also are available through the North Dakota Association of Assessing Officers and private educators, Leadbetter said.

“But for the most part, it is about a three-year process in order to be actually certified,” she said.

Dean Pearson had no assessing experience before being hired as tax equalization director in Bowman County in 2003. He worked under his predecessor for two months before she retired, “and then it was basically up to me,” he said.

Mentoring programs are available through counties and cities with certified tax directors and assessors, and the state requires someone certified to sign off on the books, said Pearson, president of the assessor association’s executive committee. Longtime county auditors also may lend their experience, and county, city and township boards must approve final assessments, providing an additional check-and-balance, he said.

“There’s plenty of help that’s there,” he said. “It isn’t like you’re put into it and then sink or swim.”

Cook asked why it takes so long for certification and whether the Tax Department had ever discussed requiring the six weeks of training all at once.

“I can’t imagine hiring somebody and saying, ‘Here’s your job but, by the way, we’re going to train you on how to do your job sometime during the next three years,’ “ he said.

Leadbetter said tax directors and assessors have numerous duties they’re required by law to complete while also taking time out for training. She and Pearson said they’re looking at different ways of offering courses – especially the basic administrative course for assessors – including online or through interactive television.

Still, Pearson said he thinks the current certification system is fine.

“To me, having the ability to learn something hands-on is very important,” he said.

The required training is less intense for assessors who serve small cities and townships. They’re required to attend a 24-hour training course and pass a test at any time within the first year of their appointment, and until then, they work under the supervision of a certified official, Leadbetter said.

More and more cities and townships are contracting with county offices for assessing services, she said, “just because simply, in the townships especially, there are very few people who are willing to or have the ability to attend a 24-hour training course somewhere and actually follow through with all of the work that’s required for assessing.”

Currently, 508 of the 1,340 organized townships and 147 of the 356 incorporated cities in North Dakota use county assessors, she said.

Smaller jurisdictions are finding it “very difficult” to find people willing to serve as part-time assessors, who are required to complete a four-hour recertification course every year, Leadbetter said.

“Many of them are not even willing to continue with that, because it’s someone who is working a full-time job somewhere else and they’re supposed to take time off from work to go to a four-hour class and get paid $50 for the year,” she said.

The assessing community has a high turnover rate, and local offices are feeling the impact of Baby Boomer retirements, prompting the strong focus on education, Leadbetter said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.