Property valuation administrators make a lot of money selling public documents to the public. In the current fiscal year, they forecast $ 1.8 million in revenue from âmiscellaneousâ sources.
The Department of Revenue cannot tell you where it came from. But, follow the trail of records and it becomes clear that most of this money comes from locking property records behind expensive pay walls, forcing the public to buy data their taxes have already paid.
Ownership records are valuable for many personal and business purposes, from researching comparable sales before refinancing a home to finding the owner of vacant land your organization wishes to purchase.
This value is not lost on many Commonwealth PWA, who treat their public data like a cash cow. At the national level, this is not the norm.
Many states, including the entire cultural spectrum from Texas to California, have understood the benefits of free public access to property records, and have taken various steps to expand their availability.
Our neighbor to the south, Tennessee, operates a statewide portal with all property assessment data available for free, no login required. Even here, six counties in Kentucky have chosen to provide all of their property records online for free, and a seventh, Fayette, offers users 100 free records per month through their website.
Similar access to any of Kentucky’s other counties will cost a wide price range, from $ 3.99 to $ 400. For the entire package, expect to pay over $ 2,000 on the cheapest packages on a patchwork of county websites.
You’ll also need to be efficient, as cheap packages often only give you one-day access. Boone County charges $ 10 per day or $ 40 per month for full online access to their records. They will earn $ 78,000 in this fiscal year, the 4th highest among counties in Kentucky.
Annual budgets obtained through an open case request show that one office’s website is by far the most profitable – Jefferson County. Louisville PVA projects just under $ 400,000 in revenue this year through website subscriptions.
The Jefferson County office reports over 20% of all statewide âmiscellaneousâ PVA income, entirely from its website. Their income is ten times that of Fayette County and about five times that of Warren County, the ACP with the second highest miscellaneous income.
To be clear, this income is profit. Records provided by the Jefferson PVA show that its website provider retains the portion of the subscription revenue that covers operational costs and returns the rest to the ACP.
The Kentucky Open Records Act restricts how public bodies can calculate fees for online access to their records, especially for non-commercial users. Browsing through neighborhood home values ââor looking for troublesome homeowners falls squarely into non-commercial use.
When I asked the Jefferson PVA for non-commercial prices, I was offered an unlimited subscription of $ 7 per month. However, you won’t find any mention of this price on their website. The cheapest option advertised is a 10-day pass, which drops to $ 35 for a month, or five times its non-commercial cost.
Jefferson PVA’s office confirmed to me that the monthly rate of $ 7 would be honored for other “real non-business inquiries”. They did not respond to questions about how the $ 10 and $ 35 fees were calculated, or whether they would support a statewide portal for property records.
At a minimum, the state should establish a fee structure for accessing the PVA website, so that counties are not left on their own to charge vastly different prices. The Ministry of Revenue, responsible for monitoring AVP, should also know where this $ 1.8 million comes from.
In an ideal world, Kentucky would follow the excellent model of Tennessee and provide a single statewide portal of all registrations for free. The free use of these documents empowers citizens, exposes corruption and removes obstacles to business growth.
Beyond all this, Kentuckians deserve not to be nickel to have access to records already paid by their taxes.
Scott Horn is a software architect and co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.