Ken Mallette had experience running a print shop when his father, Ken Mallette Sr. and a Warwick policeman, told him he ought to apply for a job in the department’s print shop.
The younger Ken looked at the pay. It wasn’t what he had hoped for, but his father argued the benefits were good and he would like the work. He applied. He got the job. He figured he would stay for several years and move on to something else.
Mallette did move on, but he didn’t leave the city until 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, more than 27 years later.
Even as the employees under his supervision as city tax collector and assessor shut off their computers and gathered their belongings, Mallette was at the counter answering the questions of a taxpayer who ducked into the office minutes before it closed at 4:30.
He’s that way.
As unpopular as the tax collector and the assessor can be, Mallette has made accessibility his trademark. It hasn’t been easy.
Nobody likes paying taxes and nobody wants to get the news that, on top of not paying their taxes, they’re faced with interest costs and possibly, even worse, having their property put up for a tax sale.
But helping those people is what Mallette says he’s enjoyed most. He can’t waive taxes, grant exemptions or forgive interest. Those powers rest with the City Council. But Mallette can work out payment plans and suggest exemptions people might not be aware of.
He’s good at listening and advising.
“I’ve had the most fun helping those who needed the help most,” he said in an interview Tuesday. He said he often works closely with Patti St. Amant in Human Services, who is often among the first to learn where people are financially strapped and faced with making choices between paying the mortgage, buying food or writing a check for taxes.
Mallette also sees the big picture and it hasn’t been pretty in recent years.
He watched as real estate values soared and then saw the housing bubble “go pop” with its fallout of upside down mortgages, empty storefronts and foreclosures. Residential and commercial values declined for each of the following three revaluations.
Yet Mallette believes the city has fared the recession better than many communities because of its housing diversity. He points out that housing ranges from the simplest of homes to mansions, and that Route 2 and its retail development is second to none in the state. The list includes hotels, restaurants, service industries, office parks and manufacturers.
He said 30 percent of the city’s property is commercial. “That’s fantastic,” he said. Because commercial values didn’t decline as rapidly as residential property, that base served to buffer the tax impact on homeowners.
Mallette loves the city.
He grew up here, attending Conimicut and Hoxsie Schools, Gorton Junior and Pilgrim High. He earned his masters in business administration from Johnson & Wales University. From his start in the Police Department, Mallette moved to the assessor’s office to assist with the revaluation being done at that time by Cole Layer and Trumble.
“We were the revaluation police,” he said of his job checking property sales to determine if they qualified; as well as the fieldwork of appraisers. Mallette had training in architecture and could draw “to scale.” The skill proved valuable in drawing assessor cards and calculating building square footage. Computers weren’t introduced until 1997.
In 2001, Mayor Scott Avedisian had plans for Mallette. He shifted departments and Mallette was named Deputy Tax Collector. That was in March. In May, then Tax Collector David Pepin announced he would be retiring in July. Mallette was named interim collector and then, in 2002, appointed director.
A year later, Eileen Johnson succeeded James Neary as Tax Assessor. Then, when Johnson retied in 2004, Avedisian asked Mallette to wear two hats. He took on the job of acting assessor and has held it ever since.
Of the two posts, Mallette said the collector is most challenging.
“People paying taxes are angry,” he said. In the role of assessor, he said there is always an appeal.
“You’re giving something whereas, on the other side, you are always taking,” he said.
Mallette has seen a lot of changes in his years with the city. He said legislation mandating revaluations every three years “means we’re in perpetual revaluation.” In the years ahead, he expects there will be increased reliance on GIS (geographic information systems) that will give appraisers a “picture from the air” showing property modifications. He anticipates that more people will pay their taxes by credit card, especially if the city’s current 2.5 percent charge fee is reduced or eliminated. Banks that are now issuing checks will electronically transfer funds to the city’s “lock box.”
Technology has eased the load. Since being named collector, the staff has been reduced from 12 to nine. In the assessor’s office, it has dropped from 17 to 12.
But technology can also be a problem, as witnessed this year when exemptions weren’t applied to the bills of about 1,000 taxpayers. Personnel have been hand-correcting bills.
“Technology failed us,” said Mallette. “For some reason, the computer decided to see how that would happen.”
At age 55, Mallette says, “I want to start another career.” He plans to do some consulting work and teach college business courses.
One thing he won’t be doing is moving from Warwick.
Florida doesn’t appeal to him. It’s too hot.
“I’m a Warwick guy. I’ll be here forever,” he said.
But he’s ready to do something different.
“I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”