Sunday | October 22, 2017
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Assessors using new tech to root out scofflaws

When someone adds an unpermitted room or building to their property, they benefit from both the extra space and by avoiding the increased property taxes they should be paying on the improvements.

Property tax assessors across the country are applying a new technology to crack down on this old crime — comparing aerial photographs and satellite images to existing house plans. Hawaii County began using that process about a year ago, Real Property Division Chief Stanley Sitko said.

“We were using Google Earth before, but Google Earth is not that accurate,” Sitko said.

The county is using Pictometry, a technology that provides aerial photographs, taken at an angle to provide views of both roof and exterior walls, to use for assessment analysis. Sitko said he’s looking forward to the day, perhaps a year or two from now, when the county will have the ability to overlay parcel lines onto the images, as well as integrate another computer program which compares older images with newer ones, to look for increased building size.

Right now, the county is working to integrate the Pictometry images with the county’s geographic information system, Sitko said.

Getting the images doesn’t cost his department anything, Sitko said, because the Police Department is already doing the flyovers as part of their operations. Sitko said he believed the equipment to get the images was purchased with federal funds. A message left with Police Chief Harry Kubojiri was not immediately returned Monday.

Hawaii County has about 140,000 taxable parcels and only 12 assessors, Sitko said.

The Pictometry images aren’t justification alone to increase a property’s assessment, but it does give his assessors cause to go check out a house.

Sitko didn’t say what percentage of properties have unreported improvements, but said it is a problem he notices, for example when he looks at a property description of a home for sale. Descriptions might tout a house having 800 square feet of unpermitted improvements.

“That’s what we’re trying to get at, identify,” Sitko said. “Obviously it has other uses than structure.”

Sitko and other county officials have, in the past, voiced concerns about nonagricultural uses of agriculture zoned land.

Those aerial images allow assessors to quickly determine whether someone is growing crops or raising cattle, for instance, or see that crops someone claims to be growing don’t exist.

Hawaii County isn’t alone in using the images for property tax assessing. In Yavapai County, Arizona, Assessor Pam Pearsall began using Google Earth, and tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase Pictometry for her assessors to use.

Pearsall said the satellite images have helped her staff, which has about 160,000 taxable parcels to keep track of.

As in Hawaii County, the assessor’s office generally only finds out about new or expanded buildings if the property owner files a building permit.

Pearsall said she sees aerial imagery as the way of the future for assessors.

“You’re saving on fuel and the assessor’s time,” she said. “Some areas aren’t safe for a person to go into. It’s economical.”