- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The Coconino County Assessor’s Office wants to hire a private aerial imaging company to take high-resolution pictures of every home in the county.

Their aim is efficiency. The office, which appraises commercial and residential buildings and lands, is also tasked by the Arizona Department of Revenue with occasionally reviewing every single property to ensure accurate records.

But in the nation’s second-largest county - with an average of just seven people per square mile - that task is nearly impossible. The office has just 15 appraisers, and that small staff can’t easily review the 75,000 parcels ranging from Forest Lakes to Fredonia and Kaibab Estates West to Flagstaff.

Safety is also a concern. Appraisers often travel in pairs when they show up at someone’s home to review it for taxing purposes.

“We’re not the first people to have this problem, and we’re not the first people to look toward aerial imagery as a solution,” said Coconino County Chief Deputy Assessor Armando Ruiz. “We want to be more effective in Coconino County. We want to make sure we’re being fair and equitable with our evaluations.”

A single appraiser could accomplish much more if he didn’t have to leave his desk for every review, he said. What would take the team of 15 appraisers just under a decade, would take half as much time.

County staff say the program exists in many other counties in Arizona and nationwide. And it’s not much different than Google Earth. The imagery and software are provided by Pictometry Intelligent Images. It enables a user to zoom in on a particular property from multiple angles and then take measurements for tax purposes. It could also be used by law enforcement.

The Assessor’s Office is asking the Board of Supervisors to approve $288,108 over the course of six years for the aerial imaging survey. And because much of the tax dollars go to jurisdictions and not the county, they’re examining the possibility of having places like Flagstaff help foot the bill.

Otherwise, the county estimates that it would require an additional six assessors to physically canvass every parcel. And a level one appraiser in Coconino County gets paid $38,127, plus insurance and benefits and overhead costs.

County staff see the program as bringing equity to the tax base. If some people’s taxes are increased, others will drop, Ruiz said. But pressed for specifics by the Board of Supervisors, he said he’d have to return with more information. In places like Flagstaff, the property tax pot is capped. That means that, by necessity, some home taxes likely have to decrease for others to pay more, he explained.

Supervisor Liz Archuleta said she was excited about the proposal because of its potential to raise revenue for school districts that have long asked about bringing illegal builders onto tax rolls.

“The way I see it, they’ve gotten by without having their impact on the tax rolls and now we’re going to get them on quicker,” she said.

Just a small sample done by county staff with existing Pictometry photos turned up more than $1 million in additional property values, packing an extra $20,000 in taxes for this year and every year going forward.

But the notion of flying over residents’ homes and taking pictures raised privacy concerns at a Coconino County Board of Supervisors meeting recently when the Assessor’s Office presented its proposal.

Supervisor Art Babbott pointed out that the proposal could be controversial and said he’d like to have more of a discussion about the potential privacy concerns some residents might have.

“What if someone is having a picnic in their backyard eating Kentucky Fried Chicken?” asked Supervisor Mandy Metzger. “Do you see all that?”

Pictometry photos presented at the meeting were of high enough resolution to conceivably determine the breed of dog in a backyard, but a company representative said they avoided such privacy concerns by intentionally providing photos that blur personal details like peoples’ faces and ethnicity. License plates are also blurred.

And that wasn’t the only concern. Babbott also found the error rate troubling. The Assessor’s Office learned in their initial survey that about 40 percent of their records are inaccurate in one way or another.

“If you look at Lower Greenlaw, almost every single commercial property is on there.”

Babbott summarized from the initial report. “It’s challenging to me to think of all these businesses building without a permit.”

Ruiz said his office was surprised as well. So he called around to the other Arizona counties who had instituted the Pictometry program. Other agencies found similar error rates.

Ruiz says it’s too soon to know how many of the inconsistencies are illegal builders and how many are county or city errors. The errors they’ve seen so far include things like garages converted into living space, porches not on record and typos put into the system. Some homes have additions not on the books as well.

That added assessed value will result in higher taxes for the property owner, who would have to be notified in advance of the changes. An appeal can be filed.

Ruiz said that efficiency is not the only benefit. The images could be used by other county agencies, like law enforcement and search and rescue.

Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil said his agency already uses Google Earth regularly and he could see his deputies putting the software to use for tactical purposes. And if there were a natural disaster, such as a fire or a flood, Pictometry would also put its planes up in the air right away to survey the damage for the county.

“One of the first things we do is we bring up Google Earth to get an aerial perspective,” Pribil said.

“It would be just one more tool,” he added. “Obviously, it would only be useful where an event happened on a particular property.”

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