Public relations recommendations for assessors
How to improve the public perceptions of your efforts to keep assessment rolls up-to-date
From the Reassessment Public Relations Advisory Group: No effort is needed to develop poor public relations. They will develop all by themselves. But to develop public understanding and support, there must be real effort. A public that understands your efforts will support your efforts.
In many communities, the most heightened public scrutiny of the assessment function occurs when assessors are adjusting assessments to reflect changes in market values. While members of the assessment community recognize that State Law requires assessments to be uniform each year, the public is generally not aware of this highly significant fact.
Refine your messages
As an assessor, the image you convey about who you are and the nature of your job will greatly affect how the public perceives you. While there are several factors affecting your image, some of which may not be directly in your control, your message can have a considerable impact on how you are viewed by the public. In turn, a strong and positive message can even affect the way you, your staff and your municipal board perceive your office and the work you are doing.
Essentially, you need to advertise the good job you are doing, to make clear what your job is (and isn't), and to keep a positive light on the assessment function.
Some recommendations for your message(s):
"As an assessor, I am competent and fair. I've had ____ years training and an additional ____ years experience. This is why the assessment roll is assumed to be correct." (In fact, when dealing with the media and public, take the emphasis off the grievance process and put it on how market values are determined. The idea is to help the public understand and experience how you arrived at their assessment, rather than simply how to complain about it.)
"My job is to be fair. I'm not here to be the enemy. If I weren't adjusting assessments, some taxpayers would end up paying more than their fair share."
"My job is about public service, not public conflict."
"The municipality does not gain increased revenues if I increase assessments. The same amount of total taxes will be collected whether assessments are adjusted or not."
"It is important to bear in mind that an increase in your assessment doesn't necessarily mean an increase in your taxes." "When assessments are kept at market value each year, taxes generally wouldn't go up without an increase in the budget."
"As an assessor, I have no control over taxes. Taxes are not a function of the assessor."
"By keeping rolls up-to-date, the municipality is being fiscally responsible. Not only are we getting State Aid, but we're saving money each year thanks to an improved bond rating and fewer tax certioraris." (Of course, you need to evaluate whether this statement is true for your particular municipality.)
Not just what you say but how you say it. Many of these suggestions were included in the recommendations for dealing with municipal boards. However, because the way you present yourself will have a considerable impact on your public image, the recommendations stand repeating here. One recommendation from an Advisory Group member that seems to sum up all of these - "Build your reputation - your word is who you are."
- Keep it simple: Remember, once upon a time, you didn't understand assessments and equalization rates either.
- Use plain language: Technical jargon won't impress, and you will likely leave your listener feeling confused.
- Expect and entertain questions: It gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism, thereby earning trust.
- Be accurate and honest: If you're not certain of an answer, don't make it up or be vague; just ensure the individual that you'll get back to him or her as soon as possible (and be sure to do it).
- Be courteous: Remember the golden rule.
- Be respectful: It's the best way to be respectable.
- Be patient: See No. 1.
Deliver your messages
It is important that you work with the media to get your message across to the public. Here we'll be sharing recommendations for other ways to deliver your message.
There are two ways to deliver your message: through publications, and through events (or both). Whichever you choose, you should start as early as possible so that your community has enough time to learn and to understand the nature of your efforts.
Share as much information as possible about what you are doing to adjust assessments. The less you share, the more questions and doubt the public may have - it may be construed as though you have something to hide. Convey as much information as possible, and you will gain credibility.
You should plan ahead, perhaps in the fall, for your public relations campaign. And, a campaign is just what it is - "a series of actions advancing a principle or tending toward a particular end." Decide upon your key messages and how you want to deliver them. You may want to form your own advisory board to help you with this effort. Some possible participants include:
- A town board member;
- A realtor;
- A prominent business person;
- A school board member or other representative;
- Anyone else who may be supportive of your efforts and familiar with the media and/or your community.
And, of course, don't hesitate to use your county assessors' association as a venue to discuss and plan your public relations strategy. You may even want to work together with other communities on joint efforts.
As you're planning, don't separate public relations from taxpayer education; the two should work hand-in-hand and complement each other. Remember, a public that understands your efforts will support your efforts.
Recommendations for publications
- Consider using Assessment Disclosure Notices (also known as "511" or "impact" notices) rather than the less detailed Assessment Increase Notices (also known as "510" notices). The 511 Notices give taxpayers more time to understand their assessment and to realize (ideally) that it does reflect market value.
- If using 511 Notices, consider including a letter explaining the reason for the assessment change, or include language to the same effect on the back of the notice.
- If inserting a letter or brochure in the town/county tax bills in January, have a local law passed to allow you to do so.
- Use your town's newsletter to keep the public informed and to educate readers on how to determine their property's market values.
- Use the town's website to inform the public and link to helpful information from the State and other sources. Consider working with your contractor or information technology office to help assessors determine the assessments of comparable properties online.
- Write an article for your local Board of Realtor's newsletter; consider your local realtors to be allies and take steps to keep them informed.
- Send new homeowners an introductory letter about your efforts to keep assessments up-to-date. Include a STAR application and a list of their inventory, and ask them to contact you with any inventory corrections.
Recommendations for events
With any event, do you not consider yourself alone. Bring in your contractor, a county representative, your ORPS customer relationship manager, a supportive businessperson, a realtor, and/or other non-governmental supporters to help convey your message.
- Conduct community information/education sessions. (See Press Release Templates for some possible approaches.) Consider having your contractor work with you on the sessions.
- Conduct roundtables or small group discussions to get an idea of what certain groups of taxpayers understand (or misunderstand), or what they need in order to understand and to be supportive of your efforts.
- Speak to community groups and or to any other group to increase public understanding and support for your efforts. Examples include:
- League of women voters
- Taxpayer groups
- Civic, service groups (Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.)
- Neighborhood groups
- Senior citizens
- Conduct a panel meeting: include two members of the municipal board, a taxpayer representative, a school board member, a chamber member, realtors, etc. Determine the community's knowledge of reassessment and define what your role is and is not. Also, ask the panel how you can best serve the community.
- Use free time on public access television. This will require some preparation, but can be well worth the effort.
Your fellow government officials—yet another public
Don't overlook the opportunity to work with local government employees to ensure they are on board with your efforts. If those employees and other local officials (elected and otherwise), support your efforts, then that will go along way to increase taxpayer confidence in the assessments you place on the roll.
- Develop a support structure for your board. The board should be able to turn to a realtor, appraiser or other individual if they are questioning what you are doing. Hearing it from a third supportive party can be just what they need to have their confidence restored.
- Educate your local government officials before doing public outreach. Everyone needs to be on the same page - especially your staff. If your municipality has an internal newsletter, this is a great way to keep your co-officials informed.
- If working with assessors from other municipalities, attend municipal association meetings (held county-by-county in many cases) to increase support and keep the elected folks informed.
- Educate your staff on how to deal with the public.
- Think of yourself as helping your municipal board to look good. "Most of them have never run such a big business before they were elected."
- Remind your municipal board that it's the minority with the loudest voice that isn't supporting your efforts. The majority of property owners want their taxes to be based on fair assessments, but the majority is relatively quiet about this.
- Work with your school district(s). If possible, get their commitment to not blame a tax bill increase on your efforts if the increase is actually a function of an increase in the levy.