WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In more than three decades as the town's principal assessor, Bill Barkin has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the town's properties and a teacher's knack for explaining how property appraisal works.
"It takes a long time to develop that verbiage and that lingo and get it down so that people understand that you're not trying to dance around the subject," Barkin said recently. "They ask you a straight question, and you say, 'This is how it's done.' You don't get into any big words or anything like that.
"The question is, 'What are you basing my assessment on?' Simply put: square foot of living area, the number of bathrooms in your house, do you have fireplaces, quality of construction, age of the house, wood decks, porches and last, but never least, location.
"You could have two houses that are identical and one is on Bulkley Street and the other is Arnold Street. They'd have the same building value but different land values. As long as I can explain to people what criteria is used and how their valuation is derived, they go, 'Oh.' "
Williamstown's assessor/educator will leave his second-floor office at Town Hall for the last time this week as he retires, just shy of 33 years in the job.
Barkin was part of an experienced team of personnel inherited by Town Manager Jason Hoch, who moved into the corner office in 2015.
"I think it's rare anymore that we see somebody who is in public service in one place for so long," Hoch said. "I've appreciated his knowledge and the stability that came in that office simply because he knows the properties, knows the rules.
"It's great peace of mind for me because I know the department is running at a high level, and it takes little of my day-to-day attention for basic operation. It lets us talk about more complex things when we do talk about things."
Barkin was one of the first people at Town Hall with whom Hoch spoke — long before the latter returned to town four years ago.
"My very first project that I did with the Town of Williamstown was as a [Williams] college student," Hoch said. "My designated staff person to work with was Mr. Barkin. I've been trying to find the paper that I did.
"Little did he know that two decades later, I'd come back to haunt him."
Hoch is the fourth town manager since Barkin came to town in April 1986.
"He remembers me, but I don't remember him," Barkin said of their encounter during Hoch's college days. "In those days, the Center of Environmental Studies would send kids over here, and we'd work with them. They would build maps of the town. They'd work with myself and [DPW Director] Tim Kaiser. And it was a lot of fun.
"I would have students over here all the time. It was great. I hardly get them anymore. … I used to enjoy that."
Barkin sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk a little about what else has enjoyed, what he has learned and what he has taught in 33 years on the job.
Question: What were you doing before you came to Williamstown?
Barkin: I came from the revaluation field, so I worked for a private entity which had contracts with the town of Williamstown, that's how I became familiar with the town. I was working on the revaluations in Williamstown starting in 1980.
My bosses sent me up here to help with residential data collection. Then, after that, I would come back periodically to do their sales verification, to pick up their building permits.
And this went on for four, five, six years until my predecessor, the assessor, decided to leave because he had his own revaluation firm. He highly suggested to the town manager at the time that they hire me to be the assessor because I had been on the road with my company for five or six years, and I was getting tired of it.
They asked me to apply. I applied. The rest is history.
Q: How different was municipal assessing versus what you were doing in the private sector?
Barkin: To go from revaluation into municipal assessing — there is a difference. Because you have to know whatever state's particular property tax laws there are. My job in the revaluation field was just to do that, just conduct mass appraisal in different cities and towns throughout the Northeast.
Coming to Williamstown, it wasn't a question of doing mass appraisal anymore, it was a question of fulfilling the duties of all the property tax laws under Mass General Law Chapter 59. That included a lot of the things I'd never done: administering motor vehicle excise, personal exemptions, farm animal classifications, working with deeds and all sorts of duties that I had never done before. There was a lot of on-the-job training that I trained myself.
Also dealing with the Department of Revenue, setting a tax rate, dealing with real estate abatement applications, working with the public — informing the public as to how their assessments were arrived at, trying to educate the public and trying to make it as transparent as possible, showing people on the computer, 'This is how your assessment was arrived at,' showing them the formulas and the methodology involved.
Q: You mentioned 'showing people on the computer.' How much as that part of the job changed?
Barkin: When I came here, we had no computers for four and a half years. Everything was done on paper. Everything, which means there was a lot of field work to be done. I was valuing property in the field with property field cards and a calculator.
I used a schedule that looked like this. This is the real deal. I had an acreage adjustment schedule, residential land tables, out-building depreciation guides … and I had to follow these guides by neighborhood. Here, you see Forest Road, use an average CDU — Condition/Desirability/Utility, a multiplicative factor. I had all these guides I had to use.
All of this stuff is now built into the schedules on the computer — land schedules, building improvement schedules — you type in what you want it to do and it does it for you. Before the advent of computers, it was very labor intensive.
But when I came here, I had an administrative assistant, and she took care of a lot of the stuff I didn't have to deal with, especially motor vehicle excise, which I knew nothing about. I am the only assessor in the state of Massachusetts, full-time assessor, with no help. I do everything myself. There is an assistant who sits across the hall, but her allegiance is to the accounting department. All she does, really, for me is answer the phone and take messages. But she is an assistant assessor and knows where everything is and can help the public if someone comes in. Effectively, I've been doing everything on my own the last four years.
And it's been no problem. Again, because of the technology. If we didn't have it, we couldn't do it.
Q: How much time do you spend in the field nowadays?
Barkin: Not as much as I used to.
Generally, for every revaluation, we're out in the field and we look at a good sampling of the properties - about 25 to 30 percent. We're looking at new valuations, we want to see if there are some irregularities, anomalies or things like that.
But I have been in every house in this town twice in 33 years. I know every property in town. When people come in, I know their house color, I know what the house looks like. The town is small enough that I have that kind of memory. I have a semi-photographic memory. Once I see a house once, I don't forget it.
Someone can come in and say, 'I live on Forest Road,' and I know the parcel map. I just know all this stuff. It's just from years and years and years of doing this and being out in the field.
It takes an assessor about five years to get to know a town of moderate size — between 2,000 and 6,000 parcels, it takes about five years. Generally, anything higher than that, you have a staff and then you have a director of assessing and the staff does all of that work.
Q: You alluded to educating the public. How often day-to-day, week-to-week do you end up doing that?
Barkin: It's fallen off to almost zero because I've been doing it for so long.
When Proposition 2 1/2 came in in 1980, and the state-mandated property valuations, in every city and town there was a major uproar. Assessors' officers were inundated. People were angry because everybody's valuations changed. Some people had to pay a lot more taxes, some people got a break and paid less taxes. But it was an equalization that was badly, badly needed.
That was 1980. Then we had revaluations every three years. So the next fiscal year, fiscal 1984, same thing all over again. People are up in arms. Why? Because the market is starting to appreciate and people's values are changing again. They went up. So there was more need for explanation. This happened here when I got here in 1986.
But finally after about four or five revaluations that I've done here and the market started to level out, people started to realize what was happening. There was no more sticker shock. You got your revaluation every three years, your property moved a little bit this way or that way, you knew what it was all about because you knew your local assessor.
So all those questions and people coming in virtually went away. Appeals went way, way down.
Q: How many appeals do you generally face?
Barkin: When I came here, there were 12 appellate tax court appeals. My last appellate tax court appeal was three or four years ago, one. Because people understand the system. There's no more sticker shock. They understand their property value fluctuates a little bit but not drastically like it did 20 years ago because the market was so dynamic. Now it's flat — here in Williamstown. I can't talk about South County, where it's still a dynamic market.
Q: What were those interactions like when people were coming in?
Barkin: Constant traffic in here. Constant traffic.
Q: What was the tone of that traffic? Were people banging on the door and yelling?
Barkin: The tone was wanting to be educated: Why is this taking place? How are my taxes going to be affected? My valuation went up three years ago, why is it going up again? There were a lot of questions as to the process and the methodology and the reason behind it.
Q: But not anger?
Barkin: There was some anger. There's always anger. Most people were not, as long as they walked away feeling like they got a good explanation.
That's the key to a good assessor, being able to explain very clearly in layman's terms what the process is.
Q: And what's your record on having assessments appealed?
Barkin: I think we had 11 appeals [to the town Board of Assessors] this year out of 3,000 parcels. That's unheard of. Most of them … I would say four or five of them we denied and the others, we granted a little bit of relief. The one thing to understand about real estate value is it's not an exact science. We can't give a range of value for your property. We have to put a hard number for tax purposes. But if we have $200,000 on your property, is it really worth $180? Probably. Is it worth $220? Maybe. If we go out to look at it and the condition isn't quite average, maybe it's fair, we can give them a little relief.
It's incredibly rare that we find a complete anomaly where the whole side of the house is gone and we didn't know it. We have a very strong Building Department, so people aren't building without building permits.
But there is room to move. It's a very gray area. If we feel people haven't met their burden, we don't grant them an abatement. But anybody who is going to file with the Appellate Tax Board has to have compelling evidence because the burden is on them. … They have to prove to the commissioner why they were overvalued, and they have to come up with hard evidence. We always counsel people if we're with 10 percent of what they think the value should be, it's not worth going to the appellate tax board. You can do it, but it's a waste of time.
Q: And the last appeal to the Appellate Tax Board was…?
Barkin: Three or four years ago.
My success at the board has been about 80 percent. Sometimes, you're going to lose. Sometimes, they won't give what the property owner wants and won't give what we want. They'll cut a little this way and a little that way. That's to be expected.
The other thing about the Appellate Tax Board is when someone appeals, it tests our assessment. How good are we doing? If the property owner can really meet its burden, then my hat's off to them. It means we probably should have taken a second look. That's happened over the years.
What you don't want to have happen which is what happened when we came here 33 years ago is the former assessor had a difficult time explaining the methodology, so people got very upset. They filed their appeals. Twelve appeals, and we won every single one of them for the simple reason that the assessments were fine but the previous assessor had difficulty explaining the methodology. Once I got here and explained, this is how it's done — A, B, C — end of story.
It wasn't overassesed. The assessor has to be able to explain everything very logically, clearly and lucidly to the property owner.
Q: I know that a lot of the valuation is based on formulas, but when it comes to assigning quality grades to properties, that has to be subjective at some level, right?
Barkin: It is subjective. You have to have done it a lot.
Before I came here, I had already reviewed and quality graded over 5,000 houses, maybe 6,000. I've been all over Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, in different cities and towns for eight years prior to coming here. I had a very, very good background in quality grades.
Unfortunately in this profession now, there isn't that much training anymore. I had fantastic training back in 1979. But they're just not trained anymore. We had two weeks of classroom training and four weeks of field training. That's not done anymore.
I am a success and product of the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, the CETA Act of 1979. That's how I got in this business.
There were 12 of us for the Pittsfield revaluation where the federal government was paying our wage but a private firm was directing us. And at the end of that one year, they took five of us on, and I was one of them. That was what the Comprehensive Employment Training Act was all about. I'm what they call a CETA success. That's how I got into this profession. I came from construction. The construction fell out around the late '70s, so I applied for a CETA job for the Pittsfield revaluation.
It will be 40 years this June that I've been in this profession. It's been a long time.
Q: Do you know your successor [Christopher Lamarre] personally?
Barkin: He's the only person I ever would have suggested to this job.
He's the president of the Berkshire County Assessors Association. And he has the same [computer-assisted mass appraisal] system that I do. He and I have the same technology vendor. So he'll be able to walk into this with very little problem. All I need to do is show him where all the files are kept. Everything is very organized, so he'll be able to find what he needs.
Q: What's next for you?
Barkin: [Pulling out a brochure from Palm Beach County, Fla.] Retirement.
I'm going to move to the Sunshine State.
The other thing is I'm a jazz guitarist and also a practicing artist, as many people in this town know. I have a pretty large website (www.wbarkin.com).
My paintings are actually hanging in the town manager's outer office.
That's really my second means of income. I've been painting all my life. One of the reasons I took this job was so I could continue doing that and not be a starving artist.
I've sold a lot of art in Massachusetts and New York, and I'll continue to do that.
Q: How do you think you'll feel when you walk out that door for the last time?
Barkin: Good move. It's time to go. I'm going to be 65 years old. My wife is already retired. The older you get, the more aches and pains you wake up to.
Over the years, I've been in a lot of city halls and town halls. And I have to say this is the most professional I've ever seen. Everybody in this Town Hall really knows what they're doing. And it's great. Everybody works very, very well together. And we're all tied in together.
It's been very, very good to work with these people.
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