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Assessor says online public records a plus, denies security concerns

December 16th, 2015 Posted in Opinion

By Jaesea Gatherum

LOGAN — With recent catastrophic events going on in the world, including school shootings and terrorist attacks, individuals’ security has become more important now than ever.

The Cache County Assessor’s Office is putting all its public records online, which has created some skepticism among some Cache County property owners

Some of the records that will go online will include homeowner information (including names and addresses), parcel numbers, taxes, property appraisals, the year the home was built, dates of any renovations, how many rooms are in the home, what the land is worth, and the size of the lot. County Assessor Kathleen Howell says this isn’t going to compromise residents’ privacy or security. “All the information that is going online is already public information,” Howell said. “There are many benefits of putting this information online.”

Some of the benefits Howell mentioned is genealogy research is made easier, because people are able to look up housing information online, rather than taking a trip the assessor’s office to request that information. People can also make sure they are being taxed fairly by being able to look up what their neighbors, with similar homes, pay in taxes.

“The public is always wondering if they are being treated the same as their neighbors,” Howell said. “This way, with the information online they can see that the values are about the same.”

Howell said one of the most important reasons why the data should be made available to the public is transparency. “It makes sure the public knows we have nothing to hide,” Howell said.

But Troy Brown, a Hyde Park resident for 30 years, says he understands that it is necessary for some information to be online, but he worries that maybe some lines could be crossed that puts the security of Cache County residents at risk.

“I think basic information like tax assessment value is appropriate,” Brown said. “But as far as a floor plan, or a sketch showing rooms, it is a little intrusive.”

Howell understands the concern. She says floor plans will not be online. A sketch of a home’s outside walls will be the available, but details of the walls within the homes will not.

“We have to be careful with what we put online,” she said. “We shouldn’t put something online just because we have the information or because we can.”

Howell also says she won’t be the only one who comes up with what will and will not be available to access online. A committee, most likely comprised of city council members, county executives, and the assessor’s IT department, will be created to decide what is appropriate to put online, Howell said. A substantial amount of thought has to be put into determining what information will benefit the public the most by putting it on a website, because once it is online, there is very little monitoring that can occur, which is why Howell believes it will be at least two years before the data makes it to the world wide web.

“It’s tricky because there has to be a balance between what is public and what is kept private,” she said. “There can’t be too much information that is private because then there are no public records.”

After working as Cache County’s assessor for 35 years, Howell has seen how what is considered public records has changed. Up until 1994, when the federal government passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, anyone could go into the assessor’s office with a license plate number and ask for the car’s owner and the assessor would give it to them. But since the law was passed, driver’s information can only be given out when a court ordered subpoena is issued.

According to Howell, after this law was passed, discussions grew about what is considered public record. If information can’t be given about the owner of a vehicle from a license plate number, how can personal information be available to anyone by looking up an address?

Howell thought a judge would finally pass a law in 2005 creating limits in order to protect the security of homeowners.

In Chicago, Judge Joan H. Lefkow’s husband and mother were shot and killed in her home by someone Lefkow had ruled against in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Investigators thought the killer, Bart Ross, had used the information at the assessor’s office to track down Lefkow’s home address so he could break in and kill her. That theory was never proven, but the idea that someone could do that is “very scary,” Howell says.

Since the Chicago case, the Utah Legislature passed a law that permits judges, county prosecutors, and law enforcement officers to have their records kept private for their protection. The federal government has yet to step in and offer any restrictions for what should be disclosed to the public for citizens who aren’t in the three categories listed above.

Salt Lake County has had its public records online since 2004, said Jarom Zenger, who works on Salt Lake County’s property ownership website.

“There are many benefits to having the public information online,” Zenger said. “It slows down the amount of people who come into the office to look up information, because it is more convenient for them to go online than go to the office.”

Another important benefit Zenger acknowledges is that since people can look up what the assessor has appraised their house for and the amount of taxes that should be paid on it, they can appeal the amount if they believe it is wrong.

Zenger has worked for the Salt Lake County Assessor’s Office for more than 10 years and he says he has never heard anyone complain that the information online is too intrusive.

“I definitely think it is a positive thing,” he said. “I would recommend that other counties should put their public records online.”

Howell doesn’t think the viewers of the public records will change significantly.

“The people who have been using it are the people who will continue to use it — mainly bankers, realtors and people looking for a home,” she said. “I don’t think it will be a site like Pinterest, that people look at just for fun. They would have a purpose for going and looking that information up.”

Whether residents of Cache County think this is a positive or negative change, they have a few years to get used to the idea or move out before it is actually implemented.

TP

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