A Phelps County resident expressed financial as well as constitutional concerns about the pictometry project during Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting.
Pam Grow, who is a member of the Phelps County Emergency Services Board (PCESB), said she was unable to attend the board’s meeting Dec. 13 when the members present agreed to contribute funds toward the project.
“I’m here more as a citizen today,” Grow told commissioners, noting that her concerns about the project are threefold — the cost of the new system, protection of citizens granted in the U.S. Constitution and whether local government is becoming less personal.
Grow wanted to know how much the project would cost and how often expenses would be incurred.
“Will it save the county any money or will it lower some expenses?” she asked. “Also, if the private economy is shrinking, should not government be shrinking too?”
According to a payment schedule from County Assessor Bill Wiggins, the total project would cost about $256,012.50, but be split among the county, PCESB and City of Rolla.
The Rolla City Council Monday night approved a motion in support of working with the county commission and PCESB on the pictometry system. County commissioners are waiting to see if another vendor can provide the same technology as Pictometry International Corp. If no other vendor can do so, a contract could be acted upon Dec. 27.
The county’s share would be divided among the assessor’s office ($72,976.50), sheriff’s office ($72,976.50), prosecutor’s office ($10,000), and collector’s office ($450) for the entire six-year contract, with the PCESB contributing $60,000 and the City of Rolla’s share being $39,609.50, both over the next six years.
The contract includes three flights — one every two years to coincide with reassessment years, which would be 2013, 2015 and 2017. However, it was noted that any of the participating entities can choose to back out of the second or third flights if they want at no cost.
Wiggins said he began looking at pictometry in order to save on the cost of rehiring staff in his office.
District One Commissioner Larry Stratman noted that reimbursements to county assessor’s offices from the state have declined over the years. “It’s forced us all to look at alternate ways to replace that money,” Stratman said.
“Bill (Wiggins) is under pressure from the state and the commission,” Presiding Commissioner Randy Verkamp added. “There are over 20,000 parcels in the county and just the mileage alone tends to be a big factor” in the budget, Verkamp said. “Long-term, there should be a cost savings (with pictometry),” he said.
Grow also questioned the images being shared with law enforcement and cited the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Page 2 of 3 - Pictometry would offer images with resolutions of three-inch pixels in urban areas and nine-inch pixels in rural parts of the county.
Wiggins said with those resolutions, people looking at the images would not be able to identify a face or read a VIN from a vehicle. Wiggins also noted that only the ortho images, which are shot straight down, would be available to the public through the online GIS system, not the oblique photos, which are shot at a 45-degree angle.
Prosecuting Attorney John Beger said if the images would be used during a search and seizure of a residence, the reason would be to look for possible escape routes a suspect may use or obstacles that law enforcement may encounter on a property. Updated images would provide better intelligence, he said.
Grow asked if there had ever been an issue where that data was not available to first responders.
Wiggins said while Rolla may not have ever had a massive school shooting, “does that mean we should not prepare for it?”
Sheriff Rick Lisenbe said pictometry would help him decide how to stage deputies when serving search warrants or when looking for a missing child, noting that updated images would be beneficial during searches.
“It’s nice to have a current aerial image of what we’re looking at,” the sheriff said.
Verkamp said Grow’s concerns are legitimate and that “our intent is not to invade privacy. We’re trying to save taxpayer dollars.”
Grow called the county commission and the city council the most local forms of government and asked if a system like pictometry would cause local government to move toward becoming less personalized or “remote control” government.
Wiggins cited state statute 137.130, which gives county assessors and their staff the legal right to be on properties to make physical inspections for assessment purposes.
Wiggins said with pictometry, while it may not totally eliminate the need for the assessor and his staff to visit properties, it would cut down on the need because he will be able to take measurements from the pictometry images. He can verify the accuracy of the measurements in pictometry with the physical measurements that he and his staff have taken in the field.
Grow said during a candidate forum in Crawford County for the assessor race, she was told that pictometry would not add anything to the office there.
“You can’t use that to judge another county,” Wiggins replied, noting that about 40 counties in Missouri are scheduled to have flyovers for pictometry.
Page 3 of 3 - “Think of pictometry as a word processor. It doesn’t write books for you. By itself, it (pictometry) is pictures and a set of tools, but without my office staff, it’s nothing,” Wiggins said.
County Clerk Carol Bennett also noted that using pictometry will not change the assessment appeal process.
District Two Commissioner-Elect Gary Hicks asked if pictometry images were to show a drastic change in measurements resulting in a large increase in property taxes, whether the assessor would set a threshold on increases to warrant a review, but Wiggins said that is why there is an appeal process. Hicks said that may lead to “a lot of unnecessary appeals.”
While Hicks said he “is on board with pictometry,” he agreed with Grow that the personal aspect is being removed by using pictometry when conducting assessments.