Property valuation administrators are earning big bucks selling public records back to the public. In the current fiscal year, they project $1.8 million in income from “miscellaneous” sources.
The Department of Revenue can’t tell you where it’s from. But follow the record trail and it becomes clear that this money is primarily from locking property records behind expensive paywalls, requiring the public to purchase data that their taxes have already paid for.
Property records are valuable for a slew of personal and business purposes, from looking up comparable sales before refinancing a home to finding the owner of a vacant lot your organization wants to buy.
That value is not lost on many of the commonwealth’s PVAs, who treat their public data like a cash cow. Nationally, this is not the norm.
Many states, including the full cultural spectrum from Texas to California, have understood the benefits of free, public access to property records, and they have taken various steps to expand their availability.
Our neighbor to the south, Tennessee, operates a statewide portal with all property assessment data available for free, no login required. Even here, six Kentucky counties have chosen to provide all of their property records for free online, and a seventh, Fayette, gives users 100 free records per month through their website.
Similar access to one of Kentucky’s other counties will cost a wide range of prices, from $3.99 to $400. For the whole bundle, expect to pay over $2,000 on the cheapest packages across a patchwork of county websites.
You will need to be efficient too, as the cheap plans often only give a day’s access — in the case of Kenton County, $5 for one hour.
Annual budgets obtained through an open records request show that one office’s website is the most profitable by far — Jefferson County. Louisville’s PVA projects just under $400,000 in income this year from website subscriptions.
The Jefferson County office brings in over 20% of all the “miscellaneous” PVA income statewide, entirely off of its website. Their revenues are 10 times that of Fayette County and roughly five times that of Warren County, the PVA with the second highest miscellaneous income.
To be clear, this income is profit. Records provided by the Jefferson PVA show that its website vendor keeps the portion of subscription revenue that covers operational costs and sends the rest back to the PVA.
The Kentucky Open Records Act restricts how public agencies can calculate fees for online access to their records, especially for non-commercial users. Browsing neighborhood home values or looking into troublesome property owners fall squarely into non-commercial use.
When I asked the Jefferson PVA for non-commercial pricing, I was offered a $7 a month unlimited subscription. You won’t find any mention of this price on its website, though.
The cheapest option advertised is a $10 day pass, increasing to $35 for a month, five times their non-commercial cost.
The Jefferson PVA office confirmed to me that the $7 monthly rate would be honored for other “true, noncommercial requests.” They did not respond to questions about how the $10 and $35 fees were calculated, or whether they would support a statewide portal for property records.
At a minimum, the state should establish a fee schedule for PVA website access, so that counties are not left on their own to charge wildly differing prices. The Department of Revenue, charged with oversight of the PVAs, should also know where this $1.8 million is coming from.
In an ideal world, Kentucky would follow Tennessee’s excellent model and provide a single, statewide portal of all records, free of charge. Free use of these records empowers citizens, exposes corruption and removes barriers to growing businesses.
Beyond all of that, Kentuckians deserve to not be nickel and dimed for access to records already paid for by their taxes.
Scott Horn is a software architect and co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition. He can be emailed at email@example.com