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Assessor shortage looms

WORTHINGTON -- State changes to the certification for local property assessors is a cause for concern in some southwest Minnesota counties who rely on temporary, part-time workers to assess everything from farms and residential parcels to commercial and industrial lands.

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Last week, Nobles County Assessor Joe Udermann and Deputy Assessor David Voehl made a request to county commissioners to add two property appraiser positions to the assessing office.

With more than 14,000 parcels in the county, Udermann said completing the necessary work with just three people is a struggle. In comparison, he said, Jackson County has 4,000 fewer parcels, yet has a staff of six.

"We are doing 8,140 parcels in-house, and four local assessors (the part-time employees) doing 5,934 parcels," Udermann said.

"I know we're trying to hold numbers down, but we need staff," he added. "If we don't get that staff, I don't know how we're going to get our assessments done."

Counties may struggle to hire staffing with the state's new certification requirements, set to be implemented in 2019. At that point, all local assessors must have an Accredited Minnesota Assessor's certificate -- a step up from the Certified Minnesota Assessor requirements that have been in place for years.

"To get an AMA is a daunting task," Udermann told commissioners.

He suggested the county try to hire assessors as soon as possible. With at least five assessors, that he knew of, retiring in recent months -- and another 15 expected to retire in the next six months -- the competition for qualified applicants is expected to tighten.

"There are counties around here who had openings and didn't have applicants," Udermann said.

Such was the case in Cottonwood County, where Assessor Gale Bondhus advertised for a licensed assessor back in February. The application period extended into March, but no qualified applicants had applied.

She then requested permission from her county board to hire an unqualified assessor and then pay for the employee to attend school.

"We hired on June 17 and she's now in her third class," Bondhus said, adding that the new employee won't earn her CMA certification until July 2014, and it will take even more schooling to get her AMA.

"It's expensive -- the county has to pay mileage, room and board, salary and the classes," she said, adding that the class alone is about $1,000.

Bondhus said she is now back at full staff, with four full-time and two part-time employees in the county assessor's office. The vacancy she sought to fill was the result of her deputy assessor accepting a position in the Jackson County Assessor's office.

Jackson County Coordinator Jan Fransen said while there is a full staff now, the county is in talks with Watonwan County to share a county assessor. Watonwan approached Jackson County with the idea after it, too, had difficulty finding a qualified applicant.

"We are looking at a sharing agreement with Watonwan County ... we're meeting with them on Tuesday," Fransen said.

Sharing an assessor with Watonwan County may lead Jackson County to promote from within for a deputy assessor, but that remains to be seen, Fransen said.

"I'm not saying that down the road we might not need to add staff," she said. "That's something that we're going to have to reevaluate down the road."

Jackson County has five full-time appraisers, plus the assessor, to handle assessments, with all but one already AMA-certified. In addition, the county works with local assessors hired by townships and small cities to appraise properties.

"Our local assessors have been retiring gradually and we've been taking over some of the jurisdictions," Fransen said, adding that while there isn't a change to a true county assessing system at this point, it may become a gradual transition.

State's new rules cause hardship

The Minnesota legislature made changes in certification for property appraisers in its last session, setting July 1, 2019, as the deadline for all property appraisers employed by counties to be AMA-certified. All current CMAs who appraise or physically inspect property for either valuations or classification for tax purposes must obtain their AMA by that date to keep their jobs.

This requirement puts added stress on counties already struggling to find qualified applicants.

Bondhus said there are roughly 550 to 560 CMA-level county employees in the state, with approximately 220 of those nearing retirement age and not planning to get their AMA.

She, along with Murray County Assessor Marcy Barritt, would like to see the legislative requirements for AMA-certified staff repealed.

"It's going to be a big cost burden to counties," Barritt said.

With just two full-time property appraisers in her office -- one CMA-certified and the other working toward CMA -- Barritt said both of her employees would likely get the certification. That may not be the case, though, for the six- to eight local assessors they work with.

"I hope the AMA (requirement) goes away," Barritt said.

"There's nothing wrong with extra education," Bondhus added. "I think all of us county assessors would agree with that."

What she doesn't necessarily agree with is that accredited licensure be required for all aspects of assessing.

"If you're up in the metro, with more complex buildings, the more education you have, the better," she said. "I don't know that we need to have all that education."

Bondhus knows the requirement will create a hardship in her office. At least two of her staff have already said they won't be pursuing AMA certification, and another is undecided.

Losing the locals

It isn't just the AMA certification requirements that are causing issues in Nobles County. Since Udermann took the helm as county assessor, he's wanted to get all property appraisals and accompanying photos and data entered into the Vanguard computer program.

Three of his temporary, part-time local assessors have since notified Udermann they won't be able to meet those requirements.

"There's three of us here, and basically we're computer-illiterate," Wally Schultz told Nobles County commissioners at their board meeting last week. "We went to two training sessions. It's hard for us to understand what we've got to do."

Schultz, along with Vonnie Rutgers and Terry Pigman, have been local assessors in Nobles County for years -- with Schultz and Rutgers notching about 30 years each.

"All these years we've been using the old book, and we put everything in that book," Schultz said. "I have six townships and one town, and to put them into this computer, I'm illiterate. The way we're doing it and the way Vanguard wants it done is two different deals."

Schultz admits that entering the information into a computer system would be "a heck of a lot simpler," but it won't be him doing it.

"If we had a heads-up 15 years ago, maybe I could do it," said Rutgers, who did assessing for three townships and one city. "Now, I can't learn it that fast."

Rutgers said she hates to quit her job, saying, "I've thoroughly enjoyed the work I've done on the township level."

Pigman is relatively new to assessing, by comparison, having performed property appraisals since 1995 for four townships and two small cities within Nobles County.

"I wouldn't say I'm computer illiterate, but I'm not a computer whiz either," Pigman told commissioners. "To get used to this program, that's going to take time.

"They've got deadlines they've got to meet; that's why I decided to retire," he added.

Udermann said the county has had the Vanguard program since 1996, and that it was unfortunate local assessors weren't trained on the system back then.

"We're trying to get our assessments as accurate as possible," he said. "If you're not computer literate, it's not easy. It's a pretty complex program."

Udermann thanked the local assessors for their work over years, and said it's a hard job with a lot of complexities.

By putting in a request to add two new, full-time staff to the assessor's office, Udermann said he's hopeful they will be able to meet the state's requirements for AMA-certified staff by the July 1, 2019 deadline.

"The first two people we get probably won't be efficient or very skilled at what they do," Udermann said. "The more we train them, the better they'll get."

Commissioners last week did offer concerns about the impact two new hires would have on the county's budget, especially considering the 3 percent levy limit handed down by the state legislature.

Further discussion on the needs in the assessor's office is on the agenda for Tuesday's Nobles County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at
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