Santa Fe, New Mexico was founded by Spanish colonists in 1610, making it the oldest capital city in the United States. Santa Fe County assessor Gus Martinez is proud of his region’s heritage, and wants to build on it to create a better future. He has reinvigorated the idea of customer service in his office by insisting that all phone calls be answered by a human being, offering coffee and water to people who visit the office, and by introducing a live chat feature on the county’s website. And while the human touch is important, Martinez also believes in using the best-available technology to address the many assessment challenges his region faces while generating a transparent and accurate assessment process.
You have made customer service and transparency a high priority in your office. Can you give us some background about what the situation was like before you implemented changes, and why you felt these changes were necessary?
We’ve come a long way in 13 years. Prior to that, we didn’t have a CAMA system—we did everything on paper. In the past eight years or so, we’ve put a lot of information into the CAMA system. We’ve put a lot of effort into updating and improving our processes. But it was tough, getting our office to buy into that change. During that time, we were doing a lot of data entry and other drudge work, and some people were a little disgruntled. At that point, there were some mixed feelings among our 42-person staff. I had to find some ways to make positive changes.
Also, people in our community didn’t like the assessor’s office. Whenever we made a change in value, there wasn’t much emphasis on community outreach, so there wasn’t much trust in the office. We had to figure out ways to communicate with the public. By putting more information online, doing community outreach, and getting information out about assessments, we could regain their trust.
Your website has received a lot attention for being user friendly and for the amount of information available to citizens. The chat feature is popular, and you are also active on social media. How have these efforts impacted the relationship between your office and the citizens of Santa Fe County?
When I took office in 2015, I had an idea of what kinds of changes I wanted to implement. One of the biggest ones was the live chat feature, because I knew that we had to move the office into the 21st century. My goal has always been to make this a model office for the 33 counties here. Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States, and we really want legislators to come in and see what we’re doing. I want our office to be different, and I knew that there weren’t any assessor’s offices in the country with a live chat feature on their website. It took some work, but it’s paid off. It’s another way to connect with our constituents. These days, people don’t want to come into the office. They want to have that conversation online. Our phone calls have gone down as a result, and it’s a good way to get information out. We drive that through Facebook, and we get a lot of good feedback through the chat feature. It motivates our employees when they get good feedback, so it’s a win-win situation for both our office and the constituent.
How else to you communicate with the citizens of Santa Fe County?
We do a lot of outreach in the community. In April, when we put out values, we go out into the municipalities Monday through Thursday, after hours, and talk with people one-on-one. We answer questions about their property assessment, we show them how to apply for exemptions, we teach them how to use the website. All of that has helped us build trust in the community. They get to know who their assessor is, who the appraisers are, who is on our staff, and they build relationships with us. People love it. We also advertise in the local paper, we do radio interviews, we communicate with local realtors, and go the annual homebuilders show. Now, when we go the grocery store or are out in the community, we get people thanking us for the good job our office is doing, which motivates our staff to serve people even better. The dynamic of the office has really changed.
You’ve also altered the way your office deals with the public face-to-face. You’ve replaced answering machines with actual people, and you offer water and coffee to people who come in. What sort of response have you gotten from the public about your unexpected hospitality?
Well, I was at the golf course last week for a tournament and this gentleman came up to me and said, “You know, Gus, before you came in, people hated your office. But now all I hear is positive things about your office, and how much people love your office now—even people who used to hate it.” For me, those kinds of comments are a good indication of how well we’ve connected with the public, that they know we value them, and that they recognize how we’re making things easier for them. People thank us all the time now, and everyone is a lot friendlier, which is a great feeling for both me and my staff.
Outreach and education seem to be the common themes in much of the work you’ve done. Regarding the education piece, did you at some point feel as if the public didn’t understand the assessment and valuation process, or how local government worked to serve them?
People get the treasurer’s office and the assessor’s office mixed up all the time. So we get the brunt of everything. I had to make sure that people know there’s a difference, so we’ve done as much as we can to get that message out, to explain what the assessor’s office does and what we’re responsible for—and what we don’t do. I think it’s paid off. With all the information we’re putting out—online, in the paper, on the radio—I think people are understanding much better what the assessor’s office does and what the treasurer’s office is responsible for. It’s taken a lot of effort, but we are seeing a payoff.
On the assessment and tax side of things, what sorts of challenges do you face as the Santa Fe County assessor?
Santa Fe is over four-hundred years old, so there are a lot of historic buildings made out of adobe, and they are very close together, and at odd angles. There are also a lot of architecturally unique designer homes, and homes valued at anywhere from a hundred thousand to twenty-million dollars. They’re hard to measure because they aren’t straight, and people don’t like us on their property—they like their privacy. Downtown, we’ve got houses that were built in the 1600 and 1700s. It’s a tough place to measure homes, and it takes a lot of time to get the sketches correct. What we’ve done to address that is bring in technology to help us. We use “oblique imagery” now, not just aerial imagery, so we don’t have to be on their property—and that technology can get measurements within inches of lasers. We need that technology to get accurate measurements because of the unique nature of the homes and buildings in Santa Fe County.
How have Pro-Val and Ascend helped you manage these issues?
Prior to Pro-Val and Ascend, we didn’t have anything—it was all paper. Now we have an inventory of our data and how many sketches we have. We can collect data and sketches and not only put it the CAMA system, but also online. We never had that kind of inventory before, and Pro-Val has really helped us collect the data.
What are the most valuable features? And how has the software affected your efficiency and workflow?
The last time we did a door to door re-appraisal was more than twenty years ago. Now, we’re on the third year of our five-year re-appraisal plan, and because we have the Pro-Val system, we were able to review 7,000 parcels the first year. The second year we did 17,000 parcels. This year, we’re on track to review another 17,000 parcels. So Pro-Val has helped us be more efficient and consistent in the number of parcels we are able to review.