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VOL. 122 | NO. 13 | Monday, January 22, 2007

New Online Tool Seeks To Make Property Assessments Quicker, More Accessible

By Andy Meek

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Since being sworn in as Shelby County Assessor of Property almost 10 years ago, it's become clear how Rita Clark feels about paperwork.

Paper records are becoming increasingly scarce around her Shelby Farms office, with tweaks constantly being made and features added to the assessor's official Web site, http://www.assessor.shelby.tn.us, in an effort to make paper record-keeping even more obsolete.

And business owners, take note: Within the past week, yet another paper-saving feature has been added just for you.

Digital convenience - or else

The assessor's office appraises two types of property each year - real property and personal property. The latter is everything - literally, everything - used in the course of running a business, including furniture, cash registers, computers, cars and more. Furthermore, personal property appraisals depend on self-reports filed yearly by each business owner in Shelby County.

Failure to file that report by March 1 of each year is a misdemeanor, though per state law, business owners have until Sept. 1, 2008, to amend any personal property schedule filed by the March 1 deadline. And now there's a more convenient way to tackle that requirement.

Business owners can take care of the entire thing online, at Clark's Web site.

"It's truly a win-win, both for the business owners and our office," said Patrick Lafferty, an administrator in Clark's office. "It certainly is the most easy and convenient way to file your personal property schedule. And on the Web site, you're not confined to a sheet of paper."

Taxed to the max

In terms of dollars, all those gadgets and pieces of equipment people use to run their businesses make up a hefty chunk of real estate taxes. In Memphis alone, there was a little more than $1 billion in personal property on last year's tax rolls, compared to a little more than $9 billion in total real estate.

More than 42,000 personal property schedules were mailed out to businesses across Shelby County last week. The assessor's office doesn't expect responses from all of them - some businesses close, of course, and some owners move away during the year and don't close the books properly on their business ventures.

The new Web site feature, though, should make it easier and boost the number of responses for filers.

"We're moving toward a lot more efficiency in our office," Clark said.

Her staff has been working on the project for the past year and had to get approval of the online format from the Tennessee Division of Property Assessments.

'Fessing up - fast

Each year, business owners report the year in which they purchased each piece of equipment they use and the price they paid for it. The assessor uses that report to determine the total value of that business's personal property.

Here's how the new personal property reporting feature works. Similar to online banking, each personal property account is assigned a unique identification number that is typed in to begin the Web-based filing session.

Upon successfully submitting the online schedule, a business owner receives a confirmation number that serves as a receipt. Online users may submit their schedule up until midnight of March 1.

"We offer a PIN number, the secure Web site and a receipt of confirmation that the schedule was received, with the date and time of the filing," Lafferty said. "So it's much more interactive over the paper schedule."

Paperless and permanent

More than ever before, the complex of offices that house the assessor's staff depends on computers to handle almost every task that comes with appraising and recording details about the more than 360,000 residential and commercial parcels in Shelby County.

For at least the past two years, for example, Clark's office has been cultivating a relationship with county government officials, municipalities and the University of Memphis to set up a regional geographic information system - a clearinghouse of accurate, up-to-date maps and information on every inch of property in the county.

The technology and the link between the several agencies that will benefit from it can be used in several ways. One example Clark mentioned in a previous interview happened years ago, when her office used new GIS technology to do a search on every house in the county built before 1950.

"With that, what you're doing is identifying potential lead-poisoning sites," she said. "But we didn't have these connections then, and by the time we sent it to somebody in the health department, I was told two years later that the person had left and it never got to her.

"This way, with these agencies sharing information, people who make the decisions will know what the data is."

In the 2001 countywide reappraisal, 30 percent of inquiries from homeowners about their reappraisal came into the office through the Web site. That tidal wave of modernity swept through Clark's office in phases, of which the new feature for business owners is one of the latest.

"This will definitely help, and I believe our customers are going to be really excited about this," Lafferty said.

PROPERTY SALES 74 196 20,828
MORTGAGES 86 244 23,989
BUILDING PERMITS 138 453 43,046
BANKRUPTCIES 64 174 13,354