Online Assessing Records . . . to Post or Not to Post?

(from Maine Townsman, February 2007)
By Liz Chapman, Freelance Writer

As more Maine municipal officials decide to post property assessment records on their hometown Web sites, the more they realize it’s not as easy as scanning and uploading tax cards.

Although the new online service of property assessment records has garnered overwhelmingly support from the people who use the assessor’s office the most, some residents and their elected representatives have taken a different view.


Take Falmouth Assessor Anne Gregory’s experience as a prime example of what might happen if your town joins the roughly 40 communities that already post the information.

Gregory recalled that everything was going fine in her presentation to councilors about six years ago. She began by showing the board the tax information that would be available to town residents, as well as the heavy users of the assessing office: realtors, bankers, lawyers, land surveyors, appraisers and title searchers.

Councilors thought it was great, Gregory said. Then she showed sketches of properties that appear on the back of the town’s tax cards. Councilors said the sketches “looked nice.”

Then she showed some of the photos of property that would also be available online. The councilors became a bit concerned, she recalled, but they still liked the new assessing program.

She continued her presentation by calling up photos of the councilors’ own properties.

Their reaction? “Oh, no!” remembered Gregory, vice president of the Maine Association of Assessing Officers, in a recent interview with the TOWNSMAN.

“It was a gut reaction,” Gregory said. “People just seemed to have a visceral reaction to it. It just seems like you are opening your closet door for the world to see.”

The Falmouth council ultimately agreed that the assessing information should be posted on the town’s Web site as a new service to the public.

Everything but the photos, that is.

Gregory said the assessing program has reduced her office staff’s workload by 30 percent.

“There is no argument that everything in the assessor’s office is public information,” Gregory said. “But as one of our councilors, a lawyer, said at the time, ‘That doesn’t mean you have to serve it up on a platter.’”

‘Tremendous tool’

Saco Assessor Dan Sanborn said putting the assessing information online, including photos, has reduced calls to his office by 3,500 a year.

Considering people can access the information 24/7, year-round, the annual $4,200 cost of maintaining and updating the information figures out to 33 cents an hour, Sanborn said.

“I love my taxpayers,” he said, “but I don’t have to talk to 3,000 of them if I don’t need to.”

He said when the phone starts ringing, he knows there is some access problem with the Web site, which is seldom. He said the program, provided by Vision Appraisal Technology, a Massachusetts firm, is “very reliable” and popular to residents as well as real estate and financial types.

The city has posted the assessing information online for five years, Sanborn said, and just one person over that time has called and asked that his property information be taken offline.

Sanborn said he mails all property owners their new assessment each year, along with a reminder that they can “opt out” if they don’t want their property data online.

“There’s no doubt about why you should do it, if you can do it,” he said.

Photos or not, the assessing program more and more Maine towns are buying offers a mother lode of information. On some sites, for example, not only is the owner of the property identified, but also past owners and past sale prices.

You can also get the address, map and lot number, acreage, and aerial and GIS photos and maps. Many of the maps are layered to show the different facets of the property: wetland areas, for instance.

In Saco, city officials have decided to spend a little more money each year so that property sales can be posted on the site each month. It’s another feature that has become popular with the public.

“It’s absolutely the way to go,” said Sanborn, a Maine municipal assessor for 33 years, the last 16 in Saco. “This is a dream come true.”

Valid concerns

But posting the property photos can be a nightmare for some people, according to Gregory, who said two visitors she had when Falmouth was first thinking about posting all assessing records sensitized her to the concerns, including photos.

Gregory said the first visitor was a federal marshal who lived in town and who was concerned for his family’s safety. He argued that a criminal sitting in jail in a far off state could find out not only where he lived, but also what his house looked like.

The marshal ended up putting his house in trust so that if someone wanted information and a photo of his place his name would not appear anywhere.

The second visitor had just moved to town and had obtained a protection order from the court. Her fear was that the man she was hiding from would find her through the town’s website.

There were similar concerns in Windham, according to Assessor David Sawyer, who said the town ultimately offered residents an “opt out” if they did not want their property information as easily accessible as it is on the Web.

To date, 150 property owners out of 8,000 parcels opted out.

“That’s worked out very well,” Sawyer said of the compromise that was made in deference to anyone who is uncomfortable or fearful of having the information floating around in cyberspace.

Both Sawyer and Gregory noted that wrestling with privacy issues while getting the new service launched has made them both realize that the Web poses questions for public officials that haven’t even been addressed yet.

While almost everything in local government in Maine is covered under the state’s Freedom of Access law, the question becomes “where do you draw the line?” asked Sawyer, who bought the Vision assessing program during the town’s revaluation last year.

For example, telephone numbers are kept private, he said. The layout of a house – where the different rooms are located – also is not provided to the public.

“The big point is whether it’s public information or private information,” Sawyer said.

In Windham, home to one of Maine’s toughest prisons, judges and prison guards might be among the people who don’t want their properties on the Web.

The information is still available the old-fashioned way if someone can’t find a certain property on the town’s site: they can drive to the assessor’s office and look up the tax card.

Sawyer thinks the new service will save time and cost for his office. As with Gregory, he wants to use the freed-up time for more training and education on assessing procedures.

Other pluses

All three assessors bought the Vision Appraisal hardware and software when they conducted their last community-wide revaluation. In all of the cases, the fact that residents could go online to check out their assessment, and compare it to similar homes and their values and selling prices, helped relieve some of the typical angst people feel after a full-blown reassessment.

As Gregory put it, “People think you’re not hiding anything when you lay it all out” on the Web.

The investment, even for small towns, would pay off, the assessors agreed. And as Mainers become more comfortable with computers, and savvier, they are likely to demand that other public information is uploaded to the Web to save them a trip downtown.

“This is the world we live in,” Gregory said. “No one has had the discussion about where you draw the line. I think the public needs to have that discussion before the horse is out of the barn.”

Jay Taranto, executive vice president of Vision Appraisal Technology, said the Northboro, Massachusetts, company has been providing software and other computer services to municipalities since 1975.

The company has installed its assessing programs in 350 cities and towns throughout New England and hosts the sites for 222 of them. It has installed the assessing program in 43 Maine communities, although not all of them have chosen to post the information online.

The Vision program includes an “opt out” function for people who don’t want their information online, although it continues to be accessible at the town office.

Taranto told the TOWNSMAN in a recent interview that the size of the community does not determine interest in the new-age service. However, the firm’s annual fee for maintaining the Web site “sometimes prohibits (smaller communities) from going forward,” he said.

Gregory, the Falmouth assessor, recommends towns spend the money necessary to get the job done, rather than rely on good-hearted volunteers who are often not trained to get such a site up and keep it running.

Readfield Town Manager Stefan Pakulski recently learned that lesson, he said. The town selectmen voted last fall to take down assessing information from the Web after hearing security concerns from some residents. The board wants the information posted on the Web, Pakulski said, but it’s a matter of how much to upload and how easy to make it for residents.

“They do want to put the information back on,” he said, “but in what form is the question.”

Pakulski said he must develop an alternate proposal, but has been held up because a volunteer in town was unable to get an alternate project up and running.

“We’re going to have to pay someone,” he said.

According to the assessors, the investment would pay off.

“Our ( Falmouth) citizens demand (the service) and they are willing to pay for it,” Gregory said. “But that’s a luxury that we have here that other towns might not have.”