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Franklin County's digitization of property records freezes

Written by Jim Hook/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Aug 19, 2016 7:14 PM
franklin_county_GIScapture.jpg

Franklin County has published its own online map with property information after cancelling a contract with a private vendor. (Photo: Courtesy)

(Chambersburg) -- Part of the $1.8 million effort to modernize property records in Franklin County has hit a snag.

Commissioners are trying to recover nearly $300,000 paid to a vendor for creating two websites - a free one giving a minimum amount of information about properties and a subscription site providing more detail. The information comes in handy when buying or selling real estate.

"It wasn't working," said Gary Martin, county chief assessor. "It kept failing."

Martin said he expected some bugs in new software, but found much bigger problems in the program supplied by Vision Government Solutions Inc. of Northboro, Massachusetts. Some data was inaccurate. The system failed to compile reports required by the state. Updates to the software required clerks to reload data they had entered previously.

"They (VGS) just weren't coming through to keep good quality property data," Martin said.

Commissioners pulled the plug on June 21 and told solicitor Mary Beth Shank "to pursue any necessary course of action, including legal action, to make the county whole."

"They have not been able to fully deliver what was promised," Commissioner David Keller said. "VGS has failed numerous times to successfully transfer the data from our old system to the new system. We can't use the (VGS) system because the data isn't correct.  In the meantime, we continue to use our old system, so in spite of the issues with VGS, we are still fully operational."

The county contracted with VGS in August 2012 for a computer-aided mass appraisal system and has paid the company $289,352. The VGS websites were to include parcel boundaries and appraisal and tax claim information, according to Keller.

Martin said the county discovered inaccuracies when doing quality checks on uploads.

VGS did not respond to a reporter's email on Thursday.

The company has installed systems for 450 clients in 13 states, according to the company's website. Half have been with VGS about 25 years. One system had more than 1.5 million land parcels.

Franklin County has about 71,000 parcels.

VGS was one of two or three vendors to submit proposals for the work, Keller said. The company had "very good references."

The county has since replaced the VGS-created free site, which ran on Microsoft Silverlight. County employees in the Geographic Information System and information technology departments have created a more user-friendly free website.

"Because of the problems with VGS, we have created our own site in house," Keller said.  "We are also developing in-house a paid subscription site with more detailed information than the free site, which is expected by the end of the year."

The free website allows a person to search property records from a personal computer by running a cursor over an aerial photograph of the county or typing in the address or parcel number of a property.

The subscription site is typically used by real estate agents and appraisers who pay 10 cents per page.  The site supplies more detailed information about a property than is available on the free site.

Commissioners are deciding what information will be available on a new subscription site.

"We are sensitive to the privacy issue," Keller said. The property data systems cannot be searched by name.

Complete information on a property is available on paper records at the courthouse.

Courthouse offices also use a computer system that allows a visitor to research a property by parcel number or address. The system dates to 1995 and does not use a mouse. The VGS system would have replaced the outdated system.

"We have to start over," Martin said.

The current system also allows the county to print out tax bills on a dot-matrix printer which is on its last legs, Martin said. The printer is expensive to service. Parts are hard to find.

The county has been paying a contractor to print the tax bills and distribute them, Keller said.

Currently the county is relying on in-house solutions to the failed contract. Keller said the county would consider another vendor who could provide a better Web site without a significant investment.

"When we started the project we did not have the in-house ability" to do it, Keller said.

The county's GIS department has grown from one to two employees.

"The GIS project has been very successful," Keller said.

GIS has played a major role in making county property records available online:

  • Commissioners hired Sidwell Co. of Chicago to map and verify all land parcels on a digital database. The county paid $1.1 million.
  • The county also paid Pictometry International Corp. nearly $400,000 for digital photography from a flyover in 2014 and another due in 2017.

The county paid for the entire system through 911 wireless fees, landfill tipping fees and General Fund dollars. The county has been able to recoup some of the cost through a Uniform Parcel Identifier filing fee, required since 2014 on any change to a property record.

Last year the UPI fee generated $360,000 that has offset the initial investment in modernizing land records, Keller said. The county's subscription Web site added another $20,000.

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Chambersburg Public Opinion.

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