Pitkin County assessor boosts website user capability
September 18, 2012
ASPEN – The Pitkin County Assessor’s Office wants to make its online data available for customized reports that users can create themselves, but last week’s announcement of the fees it will charge for the new capability was premature.
County commissioners were surprised to learn about the fee structure when a press release was issued last week announcing its implementation.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is the first I’ve heard of this,’ and the board was like, ‘This is the first we’ve heard of this,'” said Jon Peacock, county manager.
While the proposed fees might be justified, commissioners want to discuss them first, he said.
“My concern was we hadn’t had the discussion, not that it’s not appropriate,” Peacock said.
County Assessor Tom Isaac said Monday that he jumped the gun in moving forward with the fees before consulting with commissioners.
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“I screwed up,” he said.
Isaac said his office has been working on implementing the new system for two years. That’s how long it took to set up software that will allow customers to create an account and pay online by credit card for customized reports they can create using the assessor’s database.
“We’d been talking about it for so long, we forgot we hadn’t asked the commissioners,” he said.
Isaac said he is preparing a memo on the proposal for commissioners with the hope that the fees can be put in place soon.
The proposed website fee is $35 per month for unlimited use or $350 per year. Most assessors on the Western Slope charge customers for creating reports, as does Pitkin County. The proposed user fees for self-prepared reports are on the low end of the range, he said.
Users would still be able to peruse the online property data at no charge, but a customer who wants to manipulate the data with a new custom-sorting mechanism would pay the fee. Customers would create their own reports rather than having the Assessor’s Office do it for what has been a flat, $60 rate, according to Isaac.
“If you want to write down the mailing address of every person in the city of Aspen, as opposed to spitting the information out on a spreadsheet, you can do it for free,” he said.
The proposed charges will apply when someone wants to use the online sorting feature to create that mailing list or any other customized report – a list of every condo in Aspen or every property valued at $5 million or more in Pitkin County, for example.
The Assessor’s Office website – http://www.pitkinassessor.org – is used frequently by individuals creating customized mailing lists as well as by appraisers, title companies, brokers, property managers and students doing research, according to Isaac.
Charging customers to mine the county’s online data isn’t new. The county Clerk and Recorder’s Office charges $75 a week or $300 a month for unlimited access to the documents it has available online. Those rates have been in place since 2007, when the office began offering the service.
Some basic information can be gleaned without paying the fee, but those working from home or an office who wish to view Clerk’s Office documents in full, download documents or print them out must pay the fee. Researching documents on computers available to the public in the Clerk’s Office is free.
Charging for access to documents raises philosophical questions, Peacock said. Users who make heavy use of data and, in some cases, sell the information to their clients or use it for business purposes are routinely charged by counties, he said.
“There is a cost associated with making that data available,” he said.
On the other hand, once the data are online, maintaining their availability is not a huge expense, he added. Keeping information that is broadly used by the public available at no charge – allowing a property owner to look up information about their own house or a neighboring property on the assessor’s website, for example – probably ought to be free, Peacock said.
“It’s an interesting philosophical question as we move more and more toward providing services online,” he said.