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Select board discusses cost reports, public records

07/12/2007

By Lisa Loomis

After initially expressing reluctance to provide cost reports for taxpayers, members of the Waitsfield Select Board offered to make such reports available if it does not entail a great deal of work for town listers/appraisers.

The board met on July 9 with its head lister John Reilly and contracted appraiser Spencer Potter as well as lister Blaine Laskowski and a roomful of taxpayers interested in the issue of access to public records.

The select board asked to meet with Potter and the listers after a taxpayer asked why cost reports were not part of taxpayers' publicly accessible appraisal data. Cost reports are breakdowns of the particular values of the component parts of a property. For example, a cost report might provide a specific dollar value for a roof, or siding or a pond or a deck.

COMPUTER MODELING

Potter and Reilly explained that they use a computer modeling system which no longer relies on the specifics of the cost report. Potter told the select board and those present that the data which make up a cost report do exist in the computer, but that he and his employees do not routinely sort it for a cost report nor do they print it out and put it in the publicly accessible files. He said he feels the data should be accessible to the public.

"Everything we used in doing the reappraisal is part of the public record," Reilly said.

"Then why, in the appeals process, did the state appraiser have to get a subpoena to get the cost reports for one property?" asked select board member Charlie Hosford.

EVIDENCE

"We didn't use the cost reports as evidence," Reilly said.

"You never used them or you didn't have them?" Hosford asked.

"We never used them. We felt that the property record card was superior," Reilly said.

"Does the card list the values broken down like the cost report does? What about when someone asked you to see the input that created that card?" Hosford continued.

STATE APPRAISER

He asked about the specific case where one state appraiser subpoenaed the town to get the cost report and Potter said that one particular state appraiser requested the information.

"That one appraiser asked for a copy of a printed report that we hadn't generated and didn't have," Potter said.

"But the information is there in another form on the computer right?" Hosford asked.

"It's a paper report that until you go create it, doesn't exist," Potter said.

Board member Sal Spinosa asked Potter and Reilly which of the records that are kept did they feel should not be public and Reilly said everything they used should be public.

NOT CREATED

"Even if it were something that you didn't use?" Spinosa asked.

"I don't think so," Reilly said, "not the ones that were not created."

Spinosa referenced Vermont statute on what constitutes a public record, noting that documents which exist are public records and which do not exist and would have to be created, cannot be considered public records. He suggested that there is a grey area where a computer data (such as that which includes cost report data) exists and needs to be sorted in a particular manner to satisfy a taxpayer request.

"That kind of a report is a bit of a hybrid," Spinosa said.

He also suggested that if the state appraiser issued a subpoena for the cost report that it was an inappropriate use of the system, per Vermont law.

NO RESPONSIBILITY

"There's no responsibility to create a document in response to a request. By law, providing access to existing documents does not obligate you to create them," Spinosa said.

"If the question of what is a public document is a moving target and the question revolves around computer generated information versus a piece of paper in a file, it seems like the town would want to err on the side of transparency," asked town resident Jim Tabor.

Potter reiterated his feeling that the data base which includes the information is a public record and noted that the proprietary software license to manipulate that data costs about $3,000. He said that other software, such as Foxpro could probably look at and interpret the data.

SORTED AND PRINTED

"But it's our feeling that if we didn't use documents to create the grand list then we don't need to provide that data," Potter said.

Resident Brenda Shea, who first raised the issue of the cost report availability in a letter to the town, said she felt that was an unsatisfactory answer. She questioned why the reports could not be generated for taxpayers at their requests since the data exists and needs only to be sorted and printed.

After further discussion on what constitutes public records and how information contained within a computerized data set might be accessible, the board closed that public hearing, but entertained further questions on the subject during its regular public forum portion of the meeting.

LETTER OF THE LAW

The board was asked if the fact that the town could meet the letter of the law regarding public access to documents by providing simply what was used in creating the grand list, if there was any reason the town could not or should not go beyond the letter of the law in making information available if it is not too difficult.

Board member Roy Hadden said if it is merely a matter of pushing several computer keys to take existing data and format it before printing it, he did not feel there was any reason the town could not err on the side of accommodating such requests. Other board members concurred that if it is not too time consuming in terms of staff, it might be reasonable to create cost reports for people who request them.

Contact Lisa Loomis at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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