Assessor responds to Sunshine complaint

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Missouri Attorney General opens inquiry over charges for aerial photos

The Missouri Attorney General has opened an inquiry into the Barry County assessor's office following a Sunshine Law complaint filed by a Springfield appraiser.

According to documents obtained from Attorney General Chris Koster's office, Springfield man Sean Sutton filed a complaint against Assessor Sherry Sears' office in March, alleging the $6 charge for a digital copy of an aerial photo was too much and went against state statutes.

"The assessor's clerk took less than 15 seconds to pull up the aerial," he said. "Their $6 charge would lead someone to believe that a clerk in the Assessor's office is spending 45 minutes to type in a parcel number on their [geographic information system] program and send an email. The fee for a digital copy that takes zero ink and less research time should be substantially less than a printed copy."

Sears said Sutton is a somewhat frequent customer and she had has issues with him in the past.

"Because we wait on numerous people, platting and pulling maps can sometimes take up to an hour or more, and not everyone has all the information we need to make it easy to find," she said. "When Mr. Sutton does request for aerials, he typically has all the information, but we don't have a stopwatch or a time clock to time how long it takes exactly, so we have an average charge of $6 for those requests.

"Mr. Sutton said I was unreasonable and a bureaucrat and it eventually got to the point we could not talk to each other any more."

Koster's office issued a letter to Sears' office citing a portion of the Sunshine Law, which says, "Fees for copying public records, except those restricted under section 32.901, shall not exceed ten cents per page for a paper copy not larger than nine by fourteen inches, with the hourly fee for duplicating time not to exceed the average hourly rate of pay for clerical staff of the public government body."

The letter goes on to say it appears Sutton's request did not take much research time, and it asked Sears' office to respond why such a request would cost $6.

Sears said she has responded to the Attorney General's Office's letter, saying her office will give Sutton a credit on his in-house account for six aerials for which he believes he was overcharged.

Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for Koster's office, said the Attorney General is hoping to solve the Sunshine Law issues without litigation.

"We have initiated an inquiry in an attempt to resolve the Sunshine Law issues," she said. "We typically mediate with the complainant and the public governmental body to address issues without resorting to court action."

Sutton, an appraiser for Cornerstone Appraisal Services in Springfield who filed the complaint, said issues with the office have persisted over a number of years, and in many other counties provide records at a very low cost or even free.

"Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk and Dallas counties basically don't charge anything," he said. "Greene, Christian and Webster counties are completely free because you can access all the information online."

Sutton said the state has been pushing assessors' offices to convert to the GIS system because it is more efficient.

"[Sears] told me it cost $90,000 to install the GIS system, and instead of the taxpayers footing the bill and getting the information more efficiently, she is charging an arm and a leg for it."

Sears said the GIS system was installed in late 2008 and early 2009 at a cost of about $90,000, with the goal of making information easier to obtain for the public and for appraisers and realtors.

Cherry Warren, Barry County presiding commissioner, said he believes the Sunshine issue has been resolved, and the county is making a move to put such information online to avoid future issues.

"The assessor's office is under us and we were aware of the complaint," he said. "We have visited with the assessor's office and we plan to go online. We have agreed to reimburse Mr. Sutton the costs and we are in the process of going online."

Money garnered from requests, such as Sutton's total about $15,000 per year, according to an estimate by Sears, and roll into the office's revenue account. In 2014, the assessor's office had total expenditures of $411,759.26, and revenue of only $395,327.34, putting the office just over $16,000 in the red.

Sears said budget constraints have her worried if it would be a waste of money to put information online.

"We are looking at different vendors and we would have to bid it out, and it would be a nice and effective system for taxpayers and for appraisers like Mr. Sutton," she said. "We are trying everything we can do to make things easier, but that also comes with a hefty price tag."

Sears said early estimates for going online would run about $25,000 for five years, and she would likely explore some kind of subscription fee to use the program.

"So, if we spend that money, and no one uses it or pays a subscription fee, will we have spent the taxpayers' money for nothing?" she said.

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