From H. LeRoy Whiteley, Jr., Founder, Marylanders for Fair Property Taxation:
Mr. Michael Sanelli
Department of Legislative Services
90 State Circle
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
Re: Fiscal and Policy SB 553 = HB 1041
Dear Mr. Sanelli
Under the Maryland Freedom of Information Act, we request explanations and answers to the following regarding 2014 session SB 553/HB 1041 Valuation of Real Property – Internet Database.
1. Your analysis indicates, “Local expenditures increase by $585,000 in FY 2015 and by $5,200 annually beginning in FY 2016.” Please show us the detailed derivation of these figures.
2. In the derivation of these figures has the following information been factored into the derivation of these expenditures?
a. SDAT currently maintains at least two distinct databases, i.e. one for the existing publicly accessible Real Property Data Search and the SDAT restricted Worksheets database.
b. Both of these databases are accessible via a search engine that allows access to any of the 2.2 million property records by entering a county, street address, property account identifier, map, grid, and parcel number or property sales.
c. The staff uses these existing search engines every working day to access property accounts as they conduct their daily business.
d. The public uses one of these search engines every day as they access the public domain Real Property Data Search to seek data for such things as comparable property information they may wish to utilize in the appeals process.
e. What additional effort is required of SDAT beyond its already mandated tasks of physically inspecting properties, maintaining sales records, maintaining property records, etc to value and assess all Maryland property at least triennially that could possibly justify these increased expenditures?
3. Explain how “SDAT reports (and determines) that total expenditures associated with implementing the bill will increase by $1.2 million in fiscal 2015. This estimate reflects the cost of updating and modifying the department’s website to provide access to approximately 2.2 million real property account (residential and commercial) assessment worksheets and cards (double-sided), scanning and equipment costs, as well as annual website maintenance and hosting charges.”
a. SDAT already has an existing fully funded website with a search engine that allows the public to access these 2.2 million records. All that is necessary to meet the intent of the bill is to remove the exiting Real Property Data Search information and substitute the worksheets that bear the same identifying addresses, account identifiers and map/parcel information. Why is any additional cost incurred?
b. We know of one private enterprise that has purchased a number of the SDAT disks sold by SDAT’s contractor, SpecPrint. These disks collectively contain the same 2.2 million property records but apparently do not contain a search engine so the purchaser in this case developed his own to meet his specific conditions. This was reportedly done in less than one week at a cost far less than $100,000. The young people (the “kids” as this 87-year calls them) that developed and help maintain our website assure us that the conversion of the worksheets to the existing Real Property Data Search website can be accomplished by them in a week or less. Since SDAT uses Towson State University to perform its work, presumably with personnel in the same age group as our “kids”, why are Towson’s costs so high?
c. Has SDAT sought competitive bids to perform the necessary conversion or maintenance services? If not, why not?
d. The Real Property Data Search website exists and is already funded annually. Why would there be any additional cost?
e. Equipment must already exist to scan the data that is made available to the public access to the Real Property Data Search website, if that is truly the way SDAT inputs its data for public access. Why would any other equipment be required? Is the property data shown on the Real Property Data Search made available to the website by scanning the records? If so, why isn’t this data made available directly from the computer database in a read only mode?
f. What new scanning equipment is deemed to be required at a cost of $51,500? Why is this new equipment required if the same operation is used and is working for the Real Property Data Search website?
g. Why would scanning of worksheets be required under any circumstances since the worksheets are contained within a computerized database? A taxpayer can go to any County Tax Assessment Office, request a copy of their own or any other of the 2.2 million property records and instantly see a clerk access their computer to immediately have said worksheet printed out. The only caveat to this scenario is that said taxpayer must meet certain required conditions to receive a copy of worksheets other than their own. The point is that scanning should not be required when all the data can be transferred from one location to another via the computer or its servers. Therefore, there should be no scanning costs. Explain how SDAT would require $899,000 for scanning costs.
h. Explain how SDAT would require $210,000 to modify the department’s existing Real Property Data Search website when all that is necessary is to transfer the website banner to the top of the existing worksheet template and its attendant search engine information.
i. Why is there an added cost of $10,300 to host and maintain the database when the website already exists and is already annually funded?
j. Isn’t SDAT required by law to maintain the database contained on the existing worksheets for the existing 2.2 million properties in the State? Even though SDAT does not currently meet these maintenance requirements, isn’t this requirement already funded annually for SDAT to do so?
k. What are the various fees for services supplied by the Center for Applied Technology at Towson University? Who is paid to perform this work and what are their qualifications?
4. Has SDAT or any other party investigated or factored in the affect of allowing public access to worksheets without having to file an assessment appeal? If so, what are the results? If not, why not?
5. Has SDAT or any other party studied what effect making public access to worksheets without filing an appeal would have on the decision making process of the taxpayers and the resulting affect of how many may might decide NOT to file an appeal because of the information made available? If so, what are the results? If not, why not?
6. Has SDAT or any other party studied what affect this pre-appeal filing information might have on the taxpayers decision to carry an appeal to the second (PTAAB) or third levels (Tax Court) and the resulting effect on reduction or increase costs associated with the attendant change in appeal case numbers? If so, what are the results? If not, why not?
7. How does SDAT explain its increase in implied costs escalating from less than $240,000 two years ago to over $1.2 million in 2014?
8. Explain the derivation of FY 2015 thousands of dollars of each County cost increases that become less than $800 for each County in FY 2016
We would appreciate any other information that may be available that SDAT might use to justify the incredulous costs they indicate and testify will be required to implement this simple procedure to allow the public to access any worksheets before appealing an assessment. We look forward to complete detailed responses.
H. LeRoy Whiteley, Jr.