Current and former Great Barrington assessors say cubicle setup isn't private enough

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GREAT BARRINGTON — When residents come into the assessor's office at Town Hall, they usually need to talk about private financial matters.

But the new, tall cubicle inside the town clerk's office that now serves as the assessor's office doesn't offer enough privacy for people to discuss matters related to the value of their home and their related property taxes.

Both the new and former assessor agree that this arrangement isn't working.

"It's mostly talking about people's largest investments," said Shaun McHugh, who was hired last month to replace Christopher Lamarre, who took the assessor position in Williamstown, which is closer to his home in North Adams.

"Shared offices don't afford the confidentiality and privacy that taxpayers deserve when discussing matters of assessments and exemptions," Lamarre said. "Especially the elderly. They tend to be a prideful bunch. It's very hard for them to come in and say, "I need relief on my taxes, and this is why.' They have to disclose income and assets."

The assessor's office determines property values using a methodology used across the entire state. The work is both empirical and subjective. Assessors inspect homes and make observations about quality and condition, as well, and how that relates to pricing in a particular neighborhood, for instance.

McHugh said the installment of this office within the town clerk's space was part of a reshuffling after the health and building departments had to move out of the old firehouse next door because the building has been condemned.

Now the building department is in the former assessor's office upstairs, and the health department is in the tax collector's office.

Town officials agree that the cubicle is a problem. They've placed it on a "spreadsheet of issues" that newly hired Town Manager Mark Pruhenski is putting together for a goal-setting meeting on June 25, said Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon.

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"We've heard about it from Day One," Bannon said. "It's not insurmountable. We will figure it out."

Lamarre, who was the town's assessor for nine years, also said that the office has to accommodate staff as well. In this case, that's Carol Strommer, who Lamarre says is a deep vault of "legacy knowledge," since she's been on staff for more than 30 years.

"She's important," he said.

Apart from the cubicle problem, McHugh said he's settling in well, thanks in large part to Lamarre.

"Chris left everything in great condition," said McHugh, a seasoned appraiser who has previously worked as the commercial assessor for the City of Pittsfield and as a senior commercial reviewer for the private firm Tyler Technologies. McHugh has also run his own appraisal businesses.

Lamarre said he misses his colleagues and the public. But he doesn't miss his more than two-hour daily commute to and from North Adams.

Now McHugh has a commute from his home in New Lebanon, N.Y. He said he's well-acquainted with Great Barrington from his South County appraisal work.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

Carol Strommer works in the Great Barrington assessor's office. Her name was misspelled in The Sunday Eagle.


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