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In This Town, the Assessor Uses Tech to Look Into Backyards

The assessor is used to looking over fences. But now that process is going high-tech, with images from the air available over subscription-based software and fed through AI algorithms to recognize new property additions.

Richard Conti had a math problem. The assessor of the city of Taunton, Mass., is required by state law to inspect every property once every 10 years to make sure the values are accurate. But there are, well, a lot of properties in Taunton.

“Of the 19,532 parcels, I’ve got 10,706 single family homes,” Conti said. “So just the single family homes alone is a big challenge, and by getting in my car and driving around I’m lucky if I can do 25 sites a day.”

So Conti, like many assessors, found himself perpetually lagging. In the years it would take him to visit the same house twice, an owner might have added a deck in the back yard, or a swimming pool, or a shed, or renovated their kitchen. If they didn’t get a permit, the assessor wouldn’t find out about it. That’s taxable value the city would miss out on, often until the house went onto the market for sale.

These days, things are looking easier for Conti. In September, he started using a service from the company Nearmap that gives him subscription-based access to aerial imagery of the properties in his city. It’s captured with planes and available at a 3-inch resolution, and the company even offers AI-powered object recognition to make it easier to find things like swimming pools and decks.

It’s also updated about twice a year.

Aerial photo of a house

Now the math has changed; Conti estimates he can inspect five properties in 15 minutes. Over three days in January, he found new property additions worth about $107,000 in taxable dollars, which translated to about $1,500 worth of taxes for the city.

“They’re little things … it’s not like you find a house that you didn’t know existed,” he said. “It’s not $250,000 (or) $300,000, it’s never that. In fact, $35,000 is an exception. You know, usually it’s $1,000 or $400 or $1,500. It’s all these little things. But holy mackerel, over 10,706 properties that really starts to add up.”

But it’s not just the benefit of finding taxable property faster. It’s also about preventing in-person contact during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s about the cost of sending people out into the field for work they can now perform from their computers.

“The physical inspection portion of an assessor’s job responsibility is the most expensive cost in an assessing department, because you’ve got manpower out there looking at houses and not sitting here doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

The use of aerial imagery that leads to increased tax bills might chafe some, but it’s an extension of what Conti has always done. In fact, the city used to use images from a state-owned plane that would provide aerial imagery every other year. And he’s no stranger to looking over people’s fences when he would visit in person.

It’s his job. And while he knows people don’t like paying more in taxes, he focuses on the benefits the city can provide to residents with their tax dollars.

“When I became an assessor, I wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest,” he said. “You know … being an assessor is like being an IRS agent. Nobody likes you.”

He’s also not the only one in Taunton using Nearmap. It’s found users in the police department, the fire department, public works, planning and conservation, engineering and the mayor’s office. And he’s been fielding calls from other assessors in Massachusetts who are interested in using it as well. According to a spokesperson for the company, Nearmap has about 300 government customers in the U.S. with “several thousand” users.

“It’s spreading like wildfire … this is the new way assessors are going to do their job, especially because of the pandemic,” Conti said. “I mean, I don’t want to go into anybody’s house. Nobody wants me in their house. So what options do I have?”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.