In the Q&A for this month’s Property Writes newsletter, Director Robert Young and CIO John Humphries both of the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation (MD DAT), speak about how making information publically available is one way to crowd source information accuracy and quality. They explain that trust in the fairness of property valuation is a paramount reason to serve your information to the public.
Both Director Young and CIO Humphries have over 35 years experience working in MD DAT, and have led the Department through an information revolution that has transformed their operations. Their department manages more than 2.2 million property valuations for the state.
Q: In the span of your careers you have booth overseen the transformation of your department from paper-based valuations to full digital automation. Can you briefly describe that transformation?
CIO Humphries: Actually when I first started 35 years ago we had a main frame system but most of the local work was done on paper and it was actually assessment cards used to record the data. We calculated things out by hand. When we first converted these records we found tons of math errors.
Director Young: In that same time period we went from 1.2 million accounts to 2.2 million accounts today. So we’ve had over 1 million more accounts since the formation of the department back in the 1970s and we’ve actually had a doubling of the number of accounts and approximately 95 less assessors to do the work. We were able to do it because of the electronic filing systems and other enhancements that we’ve developed.
Q: From a constituent’s perceptive what are service expectations that your office must deliver of fulfill?
CIO Humphries: We have two primary customers. The first major customer is the individual property owner. Then our next big set of customers involves all the local governments. We give them the assessment data that they use to produce their property tax bills.
Maryland is unique, as we were the first state to have the State itself provide all of the assessment of real property. In most states it’s done on a county by county basis but Maryland was the first state to have it all centralized under the state.
The reason that occurred was that the Governor at the time, back in the 1970s, made the judgment that you wanted people doing the appraisal work who didn’t have a vested interest in getting the revenues, whereas if the county would be the ones performing the assessments, they also get the bulk of that tax revenue. So the Governor back then made the decision to have appraisal experts work for the State of Maryland.
It’s kind of interesting we’ve actually had businesses come to Maryland here as one of the things they thought was important was that the taxing authority is not the assessing authority. There is an independent assessing authority that does the work and it isn’t the primary beneficiary of the property tax revenue.
Q: What advise do you give for jurisdictions just beginning to implement valuation practices for property tax?
Director Young: The important thing is you have a uniform system. How many total accounts do you want to value, over what period of years do you want to do value those accounts? You also have to realize you need a major information gathering system and you need to have a system that can print that information in clear and concise terms for the property owner. If they’re going to receive an assessment notice and in turn a property tax bill you need to make what could be a very complicated matter simple and straightforward so that they understand the basis for your assessment and they feel that they’ve been treated fairly and equitably like all of the other residents or even commercial property owners.
Q: How important is public communication and public facing records access to your department’s work?
CIO Humphries: It’s absolutely critical. Again the people who receive the assessment notices, they have to buy into the system and they have to feel they understand it. There’s nothing more frustrating to get something from a government agency and yousee numbers on it and you do not understand it.
One of the things that we’ve always believed, and every time we do a new development in terms of the data system, is that we want the best possible transparency that we can get.
We have 14.5 million pages of information viewed each month where somebody in the public has access to our website to look at that information. Our data system has to effectively collect that information and then store it and then present it to the people.
Fairness is critical for the public to know that they can look at anybody else’s property and say that their neighbor is being treated the same as they are.
Q: How has making information publically accessible via the web impacted the foot traffic to your offices and the number of assessment appeals?
Director Young: In the United States as in Maryland, before the property bubble burst [in 2008] people were selling homes very quickly, and they were getting more than their original asking price. Then what happened was this terrible downturn in the economy and the real estate market was adversely affected as every state, every county, had more appeals.
We believe that we had fewer appeals than we would have if we didn’t have that public website where people could view that information. If people know that that they are being treated fairly like their neighbors then they may not appeal. The property owner knows that he or she has gotten fair information, accurate information, and they understand it.
CIO Humphries: We have so many people and organizations online reviewing our data, that if there is anything wrong, or if anything is off, they are going to let us know. And we move pretty quickly to correct issues. If it is a legitimate valuation error that is out of whack— in any way, we will go out and correct it. So public access does improve the accuracy of our data.
Q: With 14.5 million pages viewed each month, visitors combing through your data, they are going to spot trends. Would you consider that a type of public crowd sourcing quality assurance?
CIO Humphries: Definitely. Our website is also our disaster recovery site.
Q: How so?
CIO Humphries: It’s a replica of our data which is displayed on the web so it ensures the accuracy of both systems. If anything is wrong with our data identified by people when they are viewing information online, it comes back our department and I can then check it against our database.
When I first started designing this system that was one of my key points to make it a disaster recovery site because a lot of people have backups of their systems but how often do they test it— actually test it to make sure the data is accurate?
I don’t think too many people actually have full scale tests of their data. They may go and review some accounts, but you cannot get a better test than this when you have millions of people a week going in and looking at your data. That’s assuring that the disaster recovery is accurate. We have a good replica of our data out there.
Director Young: That’s one of our biggest recommendations to any country that’s new to the assessment process: Make it as publicly available as you can. Make it so that the information is translatable from your internal system to a public system.
Our experience is it is our data processing system that helps us to do more with smaller number of employees. It is also an invaluable process to take that information and package it and then put it out so that the public understands what we do.
We believe the public is our partner in using and looking at this system.
Q: What is the next technology wave on the horizon that will drive change the assessment practice?
CIO Humphries: Field editing. We’ve always wanted to have a handheld device of some type, like a tablet for example, so you can upload information of any account that you want to go view that day, upload it to your tablet, and go out easily and check those accounts, come back to the office, and then upload them back into the system instead of taking papers and making copies of things.
Making this whole process easier as far as getting the information out, and getting information in, that is what I’m looking at today, especially with limited staff and resources. This is the way to go.
Director Robert Young was appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley to lead MD DAT in 2011. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the John Hopkins University and a law degree from Yale University.
CIO John Humphries holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Loyola University.