Like most of Spokane County, the assessor’s office was hit hard by budget cuts for 2010. But a possible solution to keep service levels the same might be – literally – up in the air.
On Tuesday, Assessor Ralph Baker approached county commissioners with the idea of hiring a New York-based company to take low-altitude aerial photographs of homes and businesses from varying angles to determine property value. The work, which can be done more quickly and – in some cases – more accurately than appraisers on the ground, would help bridge the gap after the assessor’s office shed seven employees this year to meet its budget. Five of those workers were appraisers, who will now be sorely missed, Baker said.
“We needed those people,” Baker told the commissioners, saying his department has just 22 appraisers now, who will have to look at 9,283 properties apiece this year, instead of the average of 8,086.
Baker said the idea of using airplanes, provided through a company called Pictometry International Corp., makes sense because it allows his office to have “a better process” rather than hiring more appraisers.
Pictometry specializes in aerial “oblique image capture,” which means photos are taken different angles – not just overhead, of properties. Baker said that type of detail can help reveal improvements to homes such as the construction of swimming pools, driveways, garages or other outbuildings that might not be otherwise seen from the street. The photos would also be available for the public to view on the assessor’s Web site.
“My expectation is that we’ll add new construction (to the tax rolls) that we didn’t know existed,” Baker said. “The system could pay for itself.”
The county currently uses Geographic Information Systems, which is comprised of computer software and hardware that makes use of aerial photography. However, that system is primarily of high-altitude overhead shots for general mapping purposes that do not have the high-definition detail of the Pictometry system.
There would, however, be drawbacks for the system, which is estimated to have a price tag of $180,000 every two years. It cannot be used during the late spring or summer, when trees are in full bloom, or in heavily urbanized areas where buildings are obscured by other structures. It also isn’t much use during the snowy winter months.
“We want to be able to see the property,” Baker said. “It’s not perfect, but it does improve things.”
However, any information the county receives from the system could be shared with law enforcement or 9-1-1 officials – or with the planning department, who may have not received permit requests for new structures.
Baker would like to see the system in place by April, but the commissioners said they would like to see some revenue projections from updated tax assessments and assurances that the system would not be billed until the 2011 budget cycle as this year’s budget is already set.
“I see the value,” said county Commissioner Todd Mielke.
The matter will be further discussed at an upcoming meeting.