June 22, 2009

LVRJ Publisher: Newspapers need a role in printing property tax records

I have previously supported posting county tax records online instead of printing them in newspapers. Newspapers, understandably, are not keen on the idea of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue. Assembly Bill 307 -- which would have had county websites display tax records on their websites instead of having newspapers print them -- died after the Governor's veto.

Yet that hasn't stopped Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick from highlighting what can go wrong if we depend on county websites to provide public information. Discussing a story published in the Sun about building violations and CityCenter:

"The correction notices and notices of violation (for construction of CityCenter) were, until recently, available on a county Web site, as well as on a computer terminal at the county building. The county recently removed all notices from the Web-accessible database — leaving the county computer terminal as the public’s only option for viewing them."

If this happens with CityCenter violations, Frederick contends, it could happen again with tax records.

But is that the whole story? Below Frederick's story is a comment by Clark County Public Communications Officer Dan Kulin refuting Frederick's take on the issue. According to Kulin, Frederick missed this quote from the Sun story:

"[T]he notices were removed from the Internet after the county received a complaint that a particular document — unrelated to CityCenter — contained information that shouldn’t be public."

"After the complaint, the county asked the district attorney to review the accessibility of the documents, (Ron) Lynn said. The DA cleared the practice of placing the notices on the Internet and the county plans to soon put the documents back online, he said."

The transition from newspaper-printed to online tax records won't be perfect and might inconvenience a few, but the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks. Using newspapers made sense a generation ago, but today county taxpayers could save $500,000 a year if officials posted the records online. Of course, steps do need to be taken to ensure no single "point-of-failure" exists -- that the tax records remain available to the public at more than one location.

Public officials should also make the raw data of the tax records available in an easy-to-use format (XML, CSV, spreadsheets, etc.). This would allow many parties to take the data and create their own presentations of it.

With properly written guidelines, accessibility concerns can be resolved and transparency can increase.