Online photos may be deleted by Island County assessor

Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can quickly and easily view photos of Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer’s odd collection of properties and houses on Central Whidbey or U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s summer home at Lagoon Point.

On the more useful side, it’s a breeze for Island County residents to look up the assessed value of neighbors’ properties and how much those neighbors pay in property taxes — or even what type of septic tanks they have and where their tanks are located.

All of this information is available at the click of a mouse thanks to True Automation, the company that supplied the software purchased this year for the Island County assessor and treasurer’s office. It’s a huge step forward for the searchable database, which is available at the assessor’s website under the title “Island County Property Data and Tax Information On-Line.”

But the online information may be narrowed a little because of concerns over privacy issues. A number of people have called the assessor’s office to grouse about the information, particularly the photos of their homes. A letter to the editor in the News-Times complaining about the online images sparked a lively debate about privacy and safety on the newspaper’s website.

But Mary Engle may quell the outrage when she gets into office, if it’s technically feasible. Engle, a Republican, defeated Assessor Dave Mattens, a Democrat, in the general election.

Engle, a long-time member of the office staff, said she and other appraisers were concerned after finding out that photos of people’s homes were online. They didn’t even know it was happening until after the information was up.

“As a group, we thought it was a privacy issue,” Engle said.

She explained that the appraisers take the images for their own records; the photos can be used to see if there was construction or other changes to a home over time. Engle said she’s especially concerned about the release of images taken from people’s backyards.

Engle said she’ll have to wait to take office before she can look into the issue. If it’s simple to take down the photos, she’ll do it right away.

For now, Mattens said his staff is trying to be accommodating about people’s concerns, but he admits it’s not the top priority for an understaffed office.

According to Mattens, the photos ended up online as part of a data dump when the county switched over from the antiquated system to the new software. The images are attached to the other information on each property and the True Automation software allows people to see “jpegs” files online. Other counties, such as Whatcom, have identical searchable databases.

Mattens said he would like to remove all the photos except for those taken from the road or right-of-way. He pointed out that anyone can just drive by and see the same view. Also, he said the PDF files of septic tank registration and other information should also be removed.

But the work of sorting through 40,000 or so parcels and removing certain data would be very time consuming. He said it could take quite a while to accomplish. And his staff is busy going through the database and fixing other problems and bugs.

In addition, Mattens explained that the photos and the other information that his department collects is public information and he’s a little surprised that people are upset about public documents being made more accessible. Even if the information is not online, people can request it. He also pointed out that anyone can go online and look at properties through Google Earth.

In all, Mattens said he’s very pleased with the new software.

“It’s much better than anything we’ve ever had before and it’s going to get better,” he said.

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