Pinellas Co. Clicks on Property Appraisals

Like many other property appraisers' offices nationwide, the Pinellas County, Fla., Property Appraiser's Office is a busy place-perhaps a bit too busy. People looking for property title data, answers to tax valuation questions or parcel maps had to stand in line or wait on hold as overworked staffers hustled to meet data demands from a wide group of customers.

The situation was inconvenient for the ordinary citizen, even worse for "volume users" of the office-title companies, realtors and commercial developers. Limited to three requests per call or counter visit, people often speed-dialed the office, waited their turn in the queue, received the data they needed, hung up and dialed again-over and over again throughout the day. Back in the office, workers were often pulled off long-term or time-sensitive projects to help out on the phones and at the counter when backlogs occurred.

All that changed on Jan. 15, when the official Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Internet Site (pao.co.pinellas.fl.us) went on-line. The Web site serves up access to appraisal, building and sales data for land parcels within the county. Site visitors can search the appraisal database by address or parcel number and link to hypertext documents explaining valuation, the role of the property appraiser and the ad valorem process of challenging a property assessment. They also can search a list of Pinellas County tax authorities and post questions about appraisal-related topics directly to the site.

"Citizens have seven-[day]-by-24-[hour] access to data, it's free if you have the [Internet] ability and, let's face it, parking is at a premium in Clearwater," summed up Pinellas County property appraiser Jim Smith.

The site includes detailed maps of every property parcel in the county. During a database search, viewers can indicate that they would like to see a map alongside the data results of the search. Viewers can zoom in and out on the maps, and once a map is displayed, they can click over to an adjacent parcel, zoom in and automatically call up relevant information for that parcel, all without having to issue a separate database search.

"Say you're house shopping," explained Tom Iovino, administrative assistant in the appraiser's office. "To look at recent sales in the neighborhood, you just call up the data for that parcel [and] then click around the map to find adjacent properties." The new system not only frees buyers from having to scroll through printouts to find comparable data, it allows them to determine more accurately which properties truly are on a par with the one they are considering. "It's a valuable tool for home buyers and realtors," Iovino said.

In the first eight weeks of the site's existence, 250,000 pages of property data have been served up. Tellingly, 25 percent of Web traffic is on the weekend and 35 percent is at night, which clearly indicates there was pent-up demand for after-hours services.

In the appraiser's office, phone call volume dropped by 6,400 calls in the same period, dramatically reducing the number of times workers had to be pulled from other duties to help out and allowing Pinellas to avoid having to increase head count in the office, which currently employs 156 people. "It's a lot cheaper to have this on-line than it is to hire more people," Smith pointed out. Eventually, the number of workers assigned specifically to the counter and telephones may be able to be reduced through attrition or retraining for other jobs, he said.

Property Frontlines

Pinellas is the only county in Florida currently offering parcel maps via the Internet, according to Jeff Byrkit, director of computer operations for the appraiser's office. In fact, Eric Cawley, an administrative specialist in the Ada County Assessor's Office in Boise, Idaho, would take that a step further. "Pinellas County is at the forefront," he said. "Few offices in the country have made property appraisal information available over the Internet, and maps are evolutionary beyond that."

Cawley knows whereof he speaks. He just completed a comprehensive survey of appraisers' Web sites nationwide, which will be published in the May/June issue of the Journal of the International Association of Assessing Officers (www.iaao.org) in Chicago. (To view a spreadsheet of Cawley's findings, head to adaweb.co.ada.id.us/assessor.htm and click on the category marked "other.")

But if public property information may seem like an Internet natural, offices have been slow to adapt, and often for good reason. "Some offices may not see an overwhelming need," he said. "And even if they do, there are other hurdles as well." Specifically, an organization must first have or be able to buy the required technology: a fully functioning geographic information system database system, a Web server and development software, and personnel. Any offices with Net-savvy workers already on-board, Cawley said, are much more likely to be pushing into Internet delivery than those that must hire outside help.

All of those elements were already in place in Pinellas, which is one reason the office managed to keep expenditures so low. The appraiser's office has had a computerized GIS mapping system in place since 1978. During research for a new phase of the GIS database, which was being ported to a proprietary virtual database for on-line use by internal personnel, Byrkit determined that adding maps to a Web site would be a relatively easy procedure.

The mapping database is referenced by the Web server, which runs Digital Equipment Corp.'s DECthreads Hypertext Transfer Protocol server software, available for free from Ohio State University (www.er6.eng.ohio-state.edu/www/doc/serverinfo.html).

All common gateway interface scripts are written by staff. The main administrative database and GIS database have always been updated weekly; now staffers simply update the Internet database at the same time.

Pinellas had to pay only for the Internet server box itself, a $10,000 Digital AlphaStation, plus $100 for Claris Home Page Web development software. Total development time for the project was three months, and money for developing the site came through recovery of costs elsewhere in the department, so the project required no separate budgeting procedure, according to Smith.

Thus far, citizen reaction has been very good, Iovino said. In fact, the clickable menus came about in response to requests from early users of the Web site. Pinellas would consider formally measuring results of the site sometime in the future, Iovino said, but for now, anecdotal evidence tells staffers all they need to know. "The unsolicited response from users has been very positive. People are saying, 'this is what I call government in action.'"

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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