In communities across the United States, property tax assessment has long been a tedious, time-consuming, and controversial process. Land value, building improvements, location, and environmental considerations are all critical aspects that the assessor has to take into account. Assessments must be performed consistently, and property owners must have faith in the fairness of the assessment process.
In the mid-1980s, the City of Rochester, New York, planned to reassess the 61,000 improved parcels and the 9,000 vacant lots. The City anticipated that a high percentage of the new assessments would be challenged by property owners. In the past, any disagreements over valuation were resolved through discussions that relied heavily on verbal descriptions of the property. Often, city personnel would be sent into the field to photograph the property as well as comparable properties to supplement the discussions, but this process produced costly delays. The development of a method to thoroughly, quickly, and efficiently review assessments became an urgent matter for the City.
In 1982, Rochester introduced the Video Disc Property Catalog, utilizing the technology of the laser video disc to compile a pictorial record of all 70,000 properties in the City. The Bureau of Assessment created the video catalog and integrated the images with updated information. In hearing appeals from property owners, the assessors use the technology to show pictures of the property in question, of neighboring parcels, and of comparable properties recently sold. The catalog expedites the process by which properties of comparable value are identified, found, and displayed. The new system compressed the time required to completely reassess the City because parcels could be reviewed from the office as opposed to sending staff appraisers into the field, quickening the rate by nearly three times.
The most significant impact of this innovative catalog has been to improve public confidence in the integrity and professionalism of property assessments and, indirectly, the confidence in the integrity of the city government as a whole. The catalog serves as a useful tool for explaining the mechanics of assessment and for convincing property owners that the process is indeed fair.
Within Rochester, the system received wide-spread praise from residents, assessors, and the Office of Planning and Zoning. Prior to the implementation of the Video Disc Property Catalog, a 1984 re-assessment review resulted in the overriding of 75 percent of the new values. A similar review of re-assessment in 1986-87 resulted in the readjusting of only 40 percent of the new values. Rochester was the first jurisdiction to utilize the video disc for this specific purpose, and other communities have inquired about replication possibilities, including several foreign governments.