civic data allianceMembers of the Civic Data Alliance — a local chapter of the Code for America Brigade, which seeks to use public data online for civic good — are calling for the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator’s office to release its full sets of data on home and commercial property values, after the office blocked release of the data to the group unless it pays $17,000 — the going commercial rate for the public agency’s data.

Bret Walker, a software engineer who runs the open data website Louie Watch on the side, submitted an open records request to the PVA last year for its online database, hoping to use that data on his site’s mapping tools. The PVA denied the request, saying Louie Watch was seeking the data for a commercial purpose and did not qualify as a news agency. Attorney General Jack Conway later upheld that opinion on appeal.

In that appeal, the Jefferson County Attorney’s office filed a response on behalf of the PVA, stating that because home value data on Louie Watch linked to a real estate website and the PVA data would increase its traffic and “subscribers,” “JCPVA does not believe Mr. Walker should be allowed to profit … under the guise of broadcasting real estate listings as ‘news.'” Conway backed up that argument, saying because Louie Watch is a website, it should not receive the exemption from charges that is allowed for newspapers, periodicals, radio and television stations.

Additionally, the County Attorney’s office claimed that giving Walker the data without the $17,000 charge levied on other businesses who receive it would “constitute an unreasonable burden” on the PVA, and would undermine the agency’s subscription service, which pays for nearly half of its non-salary operating expenses. Figures obtained by Walker from the PVA showed that in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, more than 1,000 subscribers paid $30 a month for access to the PVA’s online search function, bringing in $320,161 in revenue, or 31 percent of its total expenses.

Currently, the PVA’s website only provides basic property data — including ownership, parcel ID, assessed value, acres and neighborhood — without a subscription.

Walker and other members of the Civic Data Alliance who run open data sites with mapping tools have recently begun an #OpenThePVA social media effort to convince the agency to release such data to them without an exorbitant charge. Noting the recent controversy over large and inconsistent increases to home value assessments by the PVA, Walker wrote last week on Louie Watch’s Facebook page: “Think of how powerful it would be if sites like Louie Watch or average citizens could examine and analyze the data and build tools to inform the public.”

In an interview with Insider Louisville, Walker said his website “is not commercial in any way, it’s just something I run because I think it’s a good idea and resource for the public.”

This mapping tool on Louie Watch follows inspection scores around Louisville
This mapping tool on Louie Watch follows inspection scores around Louisville.

Citing other cities around the country, such as Asheville, N.C., that have opened data for civic hackers to create mapping tools — and praising Metro government for making progress in opening its data to the public — Walker said if the PVA were to follow suit, “the possibilities are endless. You can think of tons of mapping examples. You could map trends over time. You could map biggest changes. You could write a tool that would monitor VIPs, like the mayor’s or council members’ assessment changes. Anything that is really good for transparency.”

Walker added that the PVA’s argument for charging such a high price to civic hackers is faulty, as taxpayers have already paid for the data, and their access to it should not be limited.

“To me, it proves that the government has a monopoly on that data and they’re the only game in town, so they can charge what they want,” said Walker. “I think that’s more of a scare tactic. Other PVAs have done that, and they haven’t stopped being able to function. They’re making themselves very opaque as an agency and are operating out of misguided assumptions.”

Colleen Younger, chief of staff for the Jefferson County PVA, told IL her office stands behind Attorney General Conway’s ruling. She said she believes that despite his assertions otherwise, Walker attempted to acquire the data for financial gain.

“I’m not familiar with the website, but what other purpose could he possibly be using it for?” said Younger.

Younger added that the PVA would likewise not give out that information for free to The Courier-Journal or Insider Louisville, saying the agency even charges Metro Council and satellite cities for the same information. As it did in its denial of Walker’s open records request, Younger stressed that her office is heavily reliant on such revenue in order to perform its property value assessment duties.

David O’Neil, the Fayette County PVA, told IL that those requesting full data sets from his office for commercial purposes are charged just over $8,000. However, Fayette County does allow searches for property values on addresses without any charge. That agency has a subscription service for searches by the name of the property owner, though fewer than 100 people pay for it, and it is a fifth of the cost of Jefferson County’s, at $75 per year. O’Neil said that unlike the Jefferson County agency, this constitutes only a small fraction of his operating budget, as the office uses other funding sources to pay for evaluators and other services it provides.

State lawmakers have made dramatic cuts to the budgets of PVA offices around the state in recent years. The Jefferson County PVA is now down to four assessors who are responsible for evaluating roughly 280,000 residential parcels and three assessors for around 24,000 commercial parcels. The Jefferson County office is facing a lawsuit from a former field assessor and criticism from state legislators, who say its reliance on computer programs instead of field monitoring to make assessments on property values may be a violation of state law.

 

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]