Assessing the problems

Telegraph photo by MATHEW PLAMONDON The management audit for the Nashua Assessing Department was released Friday, recommending sweeping changes to how the office performs its duties.

Management Audit Report

NASHUA – The position of Chief Assessor Jon Duhamel will likely be eliminated as the result of an internal audit, a study which also found the last full evaluation of Nashua property took place nearly 30 years ago.

Berkeley Street property owner Laurie Ortolano began questioning the actions of the Nashua Assessing Department several months ago after seeing a substantial jump in her home’s assessed value, which resulted in a higher tax liability.

“The removal of the chief assessor was critical to establishing any credibility within the Mayor’s Office. Too many problems have existed for far too long,” Ortolano said late Friday in reacting to the audit. “The recommended elimination of the Chief Assessor’s position in favor of a re-organization and a new position may or may not represent an improvement. Much depends on how important it is for this position to operate independently from the key political operatives in the Mayor’s Office.”

Major findings of the audit released Friday include:

– Ineffective management of the Assessing Department;

– Lack of internal policies to guide operations;

– Software systems used by the department that are not optimized; and

– A full measure and list of all properties within the city has not been conducted since the early 1990s.

Ortolano said Friday she had been told Duhamel had been fired. However, Mayor Jim Donchess and other city officials declined to comment on this. As of late Friday, Duhamel was still listed as chief assessor for the city on its website.

However, one of the major recommendations in the audit is that the position of chief assessor be eliminated as part of a restructuring effort. The audit recommends the city re-establish the administrative services director position, with that individual set to align the functions of assessing, GIS, and information technology under one directorship.

“Given the state of the Assessing Office, is the city taking the position that any of the suggested illegal activities identified by members of the public – sales chasing, negligence in applying the median ratio to abatement, and fraud, are baseless and without merit? How do we open a transparent dialog on these problems,” Ortolano said.

“Now is a critical time for property owners in Nashua. Transitions are tricky and can go well or poorly. We don’t want this opportunity to become a lost opportunity. Oversight is critical and we must all be vigilant in holding our elected officials accountable,” she added.

City’s Say

After the management audit, which was performed by the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Kim Kleiner and Nashua Chief Financial Officer John Griffin, Donchess said he plans to pursue the recommendations made in an attempt to reform and improve the functionality of the office.

“I think they did a very thorough investigation a very thorough report and I think the recommendations are sound,” Donchess said. “It’s my intention to implement them. Some of them will need approval of the Board of Aldermen.”

As to the question of whether an internal audit was good enough to assure the public the problems will be corrected, Donchess said Kleiner and Griffin talked extensively with Massachusetts-based KRT Appraisal. The city hired this firm to perform the revaluation last year.

The ability to consult with a wide-range of individuals in the industry, Donchess believes, gave them an outside perspective.

He said because of this, he doesn’t intend to hire a company to perform an external audit.

Donchess said in order to re-establish the administrative services director, the Board of Aldermen would need to approve it. However, this would create a position with a much broader reach than that of chief assessor.

“Restoring that position will enable us to streamline management,” Donchess said, “GIS, assessing and some of the other functions in City Hall.”

Other recommendations in the report relate to the software used by the office, which according to the report, includes an outdated ADMINS software and the ineffective use of the AssessPro software. Kleiner and Griffin suggest simplifying these functions and use them more effectively with the consultation and technical assistance of Patriot Properties.

They also recommend creating and updating the policies and procedures used by the assessing office to reflect the current state of operations. Griffin said this may involve taking all the rules and regulations involving assessing from the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) and simplifying them to create the city’s own set of procedures.

“I think that one of the particular findings that I had seen was there is a reliance of the assessors on the state regulations and rules, the 300 rules of the DRA,” Griffin said. “Try to take a very complicated set of rules and simplify it, such that they can follow processes, meaning the assessors and the administration staff.”

The report also listed investing in a full list and measures project over the next couple of years, which the mayor said will be proposed to the Board of Aldermen, seeing as the city has not performed one in almost 30 years.

Kleiner and Griffin emphasized this is not the end of their work regarding the city’s assessing functions. Implementing changes will take time, they added.

“This is just the beginning. There has to be an operational plan and an improvement plan for how we move forward,” Kleiner said of the audit and report. “That’s not what this is. This is recommending that further action.”