Longtime Middlebury assessor to step down

MIDDLEBURY — Point to a house on a map of Middlebury and town Assessor Bill Benton can probably tell you not only how much the structure is worth, but approximately when it was built. He’s gathered that kind of encyclopedic knowledge by being smart and passionate about a job he’s held for three decades.
Well, Middlebury is going to have to nurture another property valuation encyclopedia.
Benton officially wraps up his duties as town assessor on June 29 and will be passing the baton to his current assistant, Alison Joseph. He’s doing it in the midst of a two-year, townwide reappraisal of all properties in Middlebury, which will give Joseph some hands-on experience dealing with one of the biggest responsibilities for a municipal assessor.
“What I thought would be important was to have an opportunity to step away and have a new assessor be a part of this reappraisal so that when it goes public a year from now, (she) will have understood the entire process and had a year to assimilate to it,” Benton said. “I will be around if they need me. But I thought it would be better to have someone who was coming in new to be a major part of the process, rather than have me do it and then retire as soon as it’s over.”
He believes Joseph is equal to the task.
“She’s very fair, has a great demeanor and is good at talking with people,” Benton said.
Benton, 62, has been an appraiser since 1981, when he hung out his “W.D. Benton Inc. Appraisers” shingle in Vergennes.
He’s done appraisal work exclusively in Addison County, and has an amazing knowledge of properties in Bristol, Middlebury, Vergennes and many of the smaller communities.
Middlebury hired Benton as its assessor back in 1988. A town assessor is a paid professional charged with assigning valuations to real property in a community for tax purposes. The assessor also oversees reappraisals and maintains the grand list, which is the list of the value of all property in town. He or she is asked to appraise new homes, property improvements and do research on appeals each year.
Most communities have a board of listers. Middlebury has for years had a paid assessor and a board of listers.
“I view my role as doing the ground work and the numbers crunching, but when it comes to any appeals, then I rely on the board of listers to make those decisions.”
If a property owner is dissatisfied with the listers’ appraisal decision on an appeal, he or she can take case to the town’s board of civil authority. If the property owner still feels aggrieved, he or she may appeal the matter to Vermont Superior Court, and ultimately to the state’s Supreme Court.
Middlebury last conducted a townwide reappraisal in 2005. The state requires communities to perform townwide reappraisals when its common level of appraisal (CLA) falls below 80 percent. If grand list values are generally less than sale prices for the recent sales, the town will end up with a CLA less than 100 percent. If grand list values are generally more than sale prices for the recent sales, the town will end up with a CLA of more than 100 percent. Once the CLA is determined, it is used to adjust the homestead and non-residential education tax rates.
In essence, reappraisals are done to set a fair market value that ensures every property owner is taxed for only their fair share of the town and school budget, no more and no less.
This is the third Middlebury reappraisal during Benton’s 30-year tenure as town assessor. He has helped the town build its case in two the biggest property valuation appeals in Middlebury’s history.
In 2012, owners of the Lodge at Otter Creek (now known as the “Residence at Otter Creek”) disputed the town’s assessment of the retirement community at $19,950,000. Lodge owners had placed the number at $11,276,900. Lodge officials took their case to Addison County Superior Court after failing to strike a compromise with the Middlebury Board of Civil Authority. But the town and Lodge continued to talk, and struck an accord with a $17 million valuation.
“We came very close to going to court,” Benton said of the Lodge appeal. “We spent months and months with depositions and interrogatories and we finally mediated a settlement.”
In 2014, Woodchuck Hard Cider Co. appealed the town’s $8,895,000 assessment of its new Exchange Street cidery. Company officials had countered with a valuation of $3.6 million. The two sides eventually agreed to an assessment at $7.5 million.
“I enjoy that part of it; it’s interesting,” Benton said of the back-and-forth and homework for assessment appeals.
The New England Municipal Resource Corp. (NEMRC) during the coming months will inspect all 2,744 Middlebury parcels to assign values to new structures and existing ones that have been improved or have deteriorated. Benton is overseeing the project and going over the many numbers that are pouring into his office.
As of this writing, NEMRC appraisers had visited roughly one-third of the properties in the community, largely in East Middlebury and the Route 116 corridor. They are working their way toward the village, then it’s on to the northeast section of town before concluding the project with a review of Middlebury College’s taxable properties. Benton believes the appraisers will conclude their work next spring and begin to release results in May.
Meanwhile, inspectors are touching base with property owners to get access to buildings. If no one is home, NEMRC officials leave postcard reminders. If multiple scheduling attempts prove fruitless, the inspectors make their best estimates based on the exterior of the building and past assessments.
“We’re hoping to get into as many houses as we can,” Benton said.
While he’ll be stepping down as town assessor, Benton will not be disappearing from Middlebury or any of the other Addison County communities in which he has either conducted, overseen or verified appraisals. He will continue to operate the Vergennes office that bears his name. Leaving the Middlebury assessor position will actually free Benton up to do more private appraisal work in the county’s shire town, work that he has historically declined in order to avoid potential conflict of interest situations.
He also vowed to remain at the town’s disposal during the coming months to help out his successor during this latest reappraisal of townwide properties.
Benton said he has greatly enjoyed his experiences in Middlebury.
“It was a pleasure working with all the various boards of listers over the years,” Benton said. “They were all very thoughtful with their deliberations and a joy to work with.”
Benton credited Middlebury residents for being knowledgeable about the appraisal process,
“The people of Middlebury have been very easy to work with, respectful and intelligent,” Benton said.
Still, he’s come to a point when he’d like a little less work on his plate.
“I love what I do, but I would like to be able to have a little more flexibility,” Benton.
For example, he and his family would like more time to travel, which can be difficult when working on a string of assessments that often come with deadlines.
“I can take a week off, but I can’t take a month off,” Benton lamented.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said Benton will be missed.
“The town of Middlebury has been very fortunate to have Bill Benton as its town assessor for so many years,” she said. “Bill’s background in residential and commercial, knowledge of municipal assessing, understanding of the Addison County real estate market and congenial, professional approach combined to create a top-notch assessing office for the town.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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