Kayla Johnson Interview
This is Jean McMillen. Today’s date is April 18, 2019. This is File #8, Cycle 4. I am interviewing Kayla Bell Johnson. She is Town Hall Assessor. We are going to talk about her job and the things that she does, and the things she really knows a lot about. But first we’ll start with…
JM:What is your name?
KJ:Kayla Bell Johnson
JM:What is your educational background?
KJ:I went to grade school and high school here in Salisbury and I went to Northwestern Community College to study graphic design. Then I went through all the state courses to become a certified assessor.
JM:When did you come to the town Hall?
KJ:I started here in 2006 helping every office. I started with the assessor in 2014. I become certified in 2016.
JM:When you were working with the Tax Collector, who was the Tax Collector at that time?
KJ:Denise Rice was the collector at that time. (See Denise Rice interview)
JM:Who is the Tax Collector now?
KJ:Jean Bell (See Jean Bell interview)
KJ:A little bit, she is my mother.
JM:When you came into the Assessor’s office to help, who was the Assessor at that time?
KJ:Barbara Bigos (See Barbara Bigos interview)
JM:When did she retire?
KJ:She retired in 2016.
JM:That is when you took over?
JM:I am going to ask you about your training for the assessor’s job. When you came into this office were you trained by Barbara?
JM:What did she have you do?2.
KJ:A little bit of everything which was nice because then you know what is going on. In a small town you do everything. We discover, list, and value anything that is valuable. So here it is the motor vehicles, personal property and real estate.
JM:When did you start taking courses?
KJ:I started with my first one in 2013. I took a little bit of a break because they only offer them once a year in June at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
JM:Oh that is a hike!
KJ:Yeah so every once in a while they will do what they call a “road show” where they will do a class in New Britain, for example, but still it is not a great option. So I took them when they were convenient and available to me.
JM:Now you have posted on your door CCMA #1. What do those initials stand for?
KJ:Connecticut Certified Municipal Assessor #1 and there is also a CCMA #2 which is slightly different. That one deals more toward city with commercial appraisals and things like that. They are wonderful but they do not necessarily pertain to a small town.
JM:Are you planning to take that course?
KJ:Someday I will, just for my own benefit. I don’t intend ever to work in a city. I am not high speed.
JM:You know where your strengths lie.
KJ:Yes. I like that I know almost everybody in town, or at least their home or their parcel.
JM:It makes a difference because you are local, doesn’t it?
KJ:Yes, I don’t have to look up on the map to go find the property to inspect it because I have been on the road many times.
JM:You said that there are three things that you value, and they are…
KJ:Real estate, motor vehicles, and personal property
JM:We are going to start with real estate and go through each one. How do you value real estate?
KJ:We do what is called a mass appraisal so that we evaluate everything in the town in one shot. We do a revaluation every 5 years which is Connecticut law. We use as local as we can to compare sales to determine the value in a certain market.
JM:Do you work with realtors?
KJ:Yep, very often.3.
JM:You have some special background.
KJ:I am a realtor. That makes a big difference.
JM:When you are doing motor vehicles that is a different field. What is your source of information for that?
KJ:We get two lists a year. One we call the regular list. It is the vehicles registered in the state by October 1st which is also the same date for as everything we do must be done by October 1st. That list comes from the DMV to us. There is also a supplemental list that comes in January of the following year for anything registered after October 1st. Most vehicles come through priced. DMV doesn’t price them but they use MAVA guide to price them for us.
JM:What is MAVA?
KJ:It is like Kelly’s blue book or a similar guide.
JM:But yours is brown and yellow.
KJ: Yes, it is not blue. Then any vehicles that come through unpriced or any specialty vehicles we use those books.
JM:What would you call a specialty vehicle?
KJ:An antique car, and antique motorcycle, a truck with just a flat bed, we don’t know what type of bed is on li, a motorhome-things like that that are not your normal Subaru Outback.
JM:But you said that you don’t do something that is an off-road vehicle.
JM:How do you value personal property? What is personal property?
KJ:Personal property is a tax on basically anything that is used to conduct business in town, whether it is a local landscaper, or La Bonne’s grocery store or a small home office. Anything that you use to have that business run is taxable. So each year we send out a form which we call personal property declaration. It is a form that the state sends us where the business owner has the opportunity to declare their assets. Then we use that to value the property and create an assessment for them.
JM:Do you outsource any of this work?
KJ:I like to know what is going on and able to help everybody that comes in with a question. If I have done the prep work and followed the process, it is easier to answer the question.
JM:If somebody has a problem, they should come to you first.
JM:If they don’t get it sorted out, what is their other option?
KJ:I always prefer that they come to me first because then I can talk to them and explain something they do not quite understand or did not know about. I am always happy to come out and look at a property, to re-measure or recheck the number of bedrooms, if I have missed something or there is something I did not know about is there. If they don’t come to a resolution through me, we have what we call a Board of Assessment Appeals which is a board that is elected. They meet twice a year, once in March to hear any appeals on motor vehicles or real estate and then they meet again in September for just motor vehicles. (See John Harney Jr. interviewed by Jean McMillen)
JM:Because you are a certified assessor, you can sign the Grand List.
JM:When is a reevaluation due?
KJ:Our next one is in 2020; our last one was 2015.
JM:Why do you do a reevaluation?
KJ:to bring all the values up to current market trends. That way everybody pays their fair share in taxes. Then people aren’t over or under valued.
JM:The three things that you value real estate, motor vehicles, and personal property all go on the Grand List.
KJ:They do. There are also tax exempt properties and other exemptions added in there.
JM:Tell me what a mill rate is.
KJ:A mill rate is a value that determines how much everybody should pay in tax, so they all pay their fair share so we can balance the budget.
JM:Where do we rank in the state?
KJ:We are currently the lowest mill rate in the state.
JM:Why are we so low?
KJ:I want so say we are lucky in a sense. We have very high property values for real estate. We also have a very low municipal factor: we don’t have many town roads. Many of our roads are state or private roads so they are less costly to maintain. We have a small and valuable school system which is helpful. We don’t have any municipal paid departments; fire, police and ambulance are all volunteers. All of those things keep our budget low.
JM:We also run an efficient budget.
KJ:Very much so
JM:When do you present the Grand List to the Board of Finance? (See Bill Willis interview).
KJ:It is supposed to be signed every year by January 31st. By state statute you can ask for an extension for an additional month, but if you sign it on or before January 31st you can send the preliminary values, or shortly thereafter, to the finance board. Then before May 1st we give them our final list which is after the Board of Assessment has meet and made any changes.
JM:There are some reductions and exemptions. Give me an example of a couple of those.
KJ:There could be a tax exemption for an organization, just like the Salisbury Association or the ambulance; they are tax exempt and the schools-Salisbury School, Hotchkiss School. There are also exemptions for if you are disabled, blind or a veteran which are great to apply. Then we also have programs that assist elderly and/or low income and disabled people in town.
JM:What is the difference between a drive –by appraisal and a physical appraisal?
KJ:We do both. We try to get into every property as often as we can, but driving by we survey the neighborhood, we see what the building looks like. We get out and walk around if we need to. A full assessment is when we actually can get in the property and see what may have changed; we count bedrooms and bathrooms. We take note of any renovations or improvements with the homeowner there to show us through.
JM:The building card why do you have a building card?
KJ:They are helpful because they show any and all information pertaining to a property.
JM:But some of the properties in town were built before 1820, so 1820 is about your beginning date?
JM:What do you have on the first side of the building card?
KJ:The first side explains who owns the property, current owner, mailing address, contact information, when they purchased the home and for how much. It gives reference information as to
where you can see the deed or any maps on file. It also tracks the building permits and visit history for when I or someone else went out to look at the property. It also breaks down the land on the property, how many acres you have, and what zone they are in.
JM:The land is cut out separately from the buildings.
JM:What is on side 2?
KJ:The back side is the building so it gives the sketch of the property; it shows the dimensions and story height. It also grades your home or building as an A, B, or C. What style on construction, number of bathrooms. It also goes over any additional features like a fireplace or an out building, a pool any of those things that people like to have.
JM:Is there also a section for notes?
KJ:Yes, if we have made a change or there is something to note, like an easement or a right of way.
JM:In a piece of property, what kinds of grades are for a building?
KJ:It ranges. There is obviously your normal A, B, or C. plus or minus. We go as far as up to AAAA+.
JM:What would that be?
KJ:That would be a very nice estate quality property of any type construction; it could be a ranch or a colonial, contemporary and then we go down to EEE.
JM:Would Beau Valle on Belgo Road be an example of top grade?
JM:What would be a triple E?
KJ:Oh we don’t have many, but it would be a really derelict piece of property that has been forgotten and over grown.
JM:We maintain curb appeal.
KJ:Yes one of the many benefits of living here.
JM:Do you like your job?
KJ:I do, I didn’t think I would at the beginning. It seemed very overwhelming when I started.
JM:You do a lot behind the scenes.
KJ:Yes we do, very much so. But now that I know it and understand it and can process it, I enjoy it very much.
JM:Did it help that you had some hands-on experience with Barbara Bigos before you took the courses?
KJ:Yes because I knew what to expect in the classes. I could separate what they were teaching me from how I had already applied it in the office. It also helped before I started with her that I had worked in the town clerk’s office, and was also a certified town clerk.
JM:Oh you are a certified town clerk.
KJ:Yep I took those classes while I was taking other classes. But they are not as long and they offer more often throughout the year so it was easier to go through that process.
JM;It is good to have 2 strings to your bow.
KJ:Yes very much so. I had read deeds. I had processed the maps before coming in here and it all flowed together nicely. It was all very helpful.
JM:Good. Then you intend to stay?
KJ:Yes I would prefer to stay here my entire career. That is one thing that led me to pursuing certification because I really like working here in town. I like my co-workers; I like the town hall atmosphere. I don’t ever dread coming to work which I know many people do.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add before we close?
KJ:You have done a very good job summarizing and coming up with questions.