Busting Bootleggers

Florida's Alachua County is $1 million richer thanks to aggressive efforts to target "bootleg" cellular sites.

by / May 6, 2002 0
Alachua County, Fla., officials have been considering the best way to approach regulating the proliferation of cellular phone towers in their county for several years.

During their examination of the issue, staff from various county departments took a field trip to get an idea of what antenna arrays look like and the various combinations of arrays that towers could support.

What they found was a bit of a shock.

"They discovered a number of bootleg arrays that had not been permitted by any agency and were not listed on the property appraiser's records," said Penny Wheat, a member of the county's Board of Commissioners since 1986. "People were quite shocked that there were bootleg antenna arrays that were being constructed without receiving any permission from any local government, much less being listed on the tax rolls."

A "bootlegged" antenna is an apparatus that is unknown to municipal officials. It is a problem that municipalities across the country face.

The Alachua County field trip's payoff?

Wheat said the county, once it became aware of the antenna arrays, was able to add approximately $1 million in tax revenues to its coffers from the carriers who built the arrays.

The Board of Commissioners made a concerted effort over two years to learn the nuances of telecommunications and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, she said, noting that it's important for counties to educate themselves about telecommunications issues.

In Everybody's Back Yard
"Generally speaking, every jurisdiction that I go to, we find bootlegs," said Ted Kreines, the planning consultant hired by Alachua County to help the county develop a master plan for cellular sites and get a handle on the proper manner of assessing them. "I'll drive down the street with a planner, and say, 'Now, take a look at that right there.' And they'll say, 'Hm, I've never seen that before.'"

It's a problem that will only get worse, he said, as the number of cell sites increases at an almost exponential rate as carriers build out their infrastructures to compete against each other.

Though this is clearly a tangible problem, pinpointing who is to blame is a hazy proposition.

"Bootlegging is a widespread problem," Kreines said. "It's done by every one; winked at by everyone; and accepted, more or less, by everyone in a 'don't ask, don't tell' context."

Kreines said many governments are aware of the problem, and carriers know they aren't paying all the property taxes they should be. This doesn't necessarily mean that municipal staff isn't capable or isn't doing their job, he said.

"The biggest problem with bootlegging is that not all of the carriers have come in for the kind of permit that you need to know that they're there," he said. "If I go to rooftops in Sacramento, Calif., especially on state office buildings, my guess is that I'll be looking at a lot of [facilities] that haven't been permitted. [The companies building the facilities] all have different kinds of rationales, 'Well, if I'm on a state office building, the city of Sacramento has no purview, so why even bother.'"

Though that's not true, Kreines said, it doesn't stop the companies from building first and responding to questions later.

Another wrinkle in attempting to determine the extent of cellular facilities located in a county is the relationship, at least in some states, between cities and counties.

Robert McRae, chief assessor of Chester County, Pa., has just begun collecting information on how many cell sites are in his county -- which covers approximately 450,000 acres and has a population of approximately 430,000 -- and has found 321 sites so far.

"We've found ways to identify these sites without relying specifically on the municipalities to tell us where they are, because, in Pennsylvania, all the permitting is done at the municipal level," McRae said. "We're at the mercy of each municipality -- we have 73 -- to provide us with all the permit data that occurs in any given month so we can reflect the assessment record accordingly."

Pennsylvania's law doesn't mandate that municipalities share this information with the county, he said, adding that his office purchased some data from a mass-appraisal company, Cole Layer Trumble, to get an accurate count of the number of cell sites in the county.

"I was surprised when we looked at the number of these sites that we have in the county compared to what information we've gotten as far as building permits," he said. "All this permitting is done on a local, municipal basis, and this isn't to say that these sites were done without permits. It's just that these municipalities haven't provided us with the permit data."

State law requires municipalities to share this information, but there's no real mechanism to make them do so, he said, noting that this problem extends to other types of building activity.

"We have shopping centers for which there are permits, but we are not notified of them," McRae said. "It's very prevalent in new construction of homes. We discover these in our normal rounds, and we go back and look in that township's file and find we never got anything on it. The municipality has never provided us with the information, and we're constantly begging the municipalities to do this.

"It amazes me that the municipalities don't realize that by doing this, they're helping themselves and their school districts," he said. "They don't realize this is helping them help themselves."

A New Mindset
Once a county has found sites that it wasn't aware of, the next challenge is assessing those sites, McRae said.

He said assessors should collect as much information about the income from a particular tower as they can, because that's income that can be assessed by a county.

"You have to assemble this information, analyze it and see how you can apply it to your county's situation and then judge whether it's going to be cost effective to look at it on an income approach basis," he said.

Cell towers generate a significant amount of income, according to McRae, and that income seems to be consistent, regardless of where the towers are located. He also said the rents paid to landowners by the companies that put up the facilities are also fairly consistent between states, based on his preliminary research.

Previously, assessing cell sites and towers was done on a reproduction cost basis -- an assessor would attempt to determine how much it cost to build the tower or antenna array and then make the assessment based on that dollar figure. This approach needs to change to an income-based assessment approach, McRae said.

"These towers are generating income for the landowner; they are improvements to the land; they are permanent fixtures on the land; so it's my assumption that they would be better addressed on an income basis than on a depreciated-cost basis," he said.

However, McRae said assessors are essentially starting from scratch with this approach because there are no models currently available.

"I've talked to the regional manager of Cole Layer Trumble -- who did our reassessment and who's involved in doing other countywide reassessments in our state and other states -- and they really have not developed any models for this," he said. "In some instances, the company has been told by chief assessors in counties to just ignore the cell towers."