Mosaic Parcel Map: From Tax Assessment to Disaster Recovery-More

By Stephan W. Hamilton

When the July 2008 tornado ripped through the Granite State, it left a scar across the landscape that measured 50 miles. State and local officials charged with recovery efforts were confronted with a challenge: how to place a dollar amount on the collective damage in order to apply for federal disaster relief.

Less than three weeks prior, I had joined the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) as director of the Property Appraisal Division. In the days immediately following the tornado, the previous commissioner asked if it would be possible to estimate the dollar amount of damage that had been done in the storm. The New Hampshire National Guard had taken aerial photographs of the disaster path, which the Department of Safety had converted for use with a Geographic Information System (GIS). All we needed were a couple of magic buttons on my computer. I checked, but they weren't there!

Instead of rapidly deriving a list of the damaged properties from a GIS system, we had to assign individual field representatives to retrieve assessment information from the town halls. It took a lot of time and effort, and was intrusive to the towns at a time when they were trying to recover from the storm. The last thing a municipal official needs to deal with during a disaster crisis is a DRA representative asking for 500 individual property record cards. In all, it took more than two weeks for DRA staff to compile a list of the damaged properties. A timeframe which, given the circumstances and methods available, speaks to remarkable hard work and cooperation from both municipal and state officials.

Vision for the Mosaic Parcel Map
A statewide, mosaic parcel map would have made for a faster non-intrusive response by providing disaster recovery personnel more effective tools. In 2009, we began to lay the groundwork to develop such a tool, and the New Hampshire Mosaic Parcel Map Project was born. The success of this project to date has been largely based on overwhelming municipal support and an unprecedented level of cooperation. As of January 2011, the mosaic parcel map includes 100 communities, more than 300,000 parcels and 421,000 assessment records. See the Who's Participating map.

Recently, the project team performed simulations showing that compiling a base list for a similar disaster would take under five minutes. This would enable state agencies to have field staff out assessing damage immediately following a storm, rather than beginning the process of collecting basic information. By assembling the mosaic parcel map now and keeping it updated regularly, the assessing community is significantly increasing the emergency preparedness of the entire state and setting an example to be emulated by other states across the country. With more than two-thirds of the parcels in the state already in the system, it is exciting to be part of a project that involves all levels of government in the state demonstrating New Hampshire's fortitude even in this tough economic climate.

Granite to Green: DRA's Modernization Effort
A little more than a year ago, the DRA began the Granite to Green initiative to modernize its operations and systems. The process began by identifying as many manual or low-tech systems and processes as possible and replacing them with high-tech sustainable alternatives. In some cases, this will mean automating internal operations, such as replacing manual data entry with high-speed intelligent scanners, while in others it will mean providing citizens with e-solutions, such as online filing of tax returns and forms. Granite to Green focuses on improving the elements that will make DRA systems more efficient, decrease operating costs and provide customers with a better experience.

Within the Property Appraisal Division, the systems and processes related to assessing and property tax equalization were targeted for modernization. To this end, DRA has entered into a partnership with the University of New Hampshire Technology Transfer Center (UNH T2) to construct the mosaic parcel map and develop an improved interface for the property tax equalization process. The mosaic parcel map will contain each municipality's tax maps knit together into a single digital file. This initial step will provide a representation of all property boundaries in the state. When the parcels are correlated to limited property assessment information derived from municipal computer assisted mass appraisal (CAMA) systems, a useful assessing, planning, disaster relief and economic development tool is created.

Traditionally, parcel maps, also known as tax or assessors maps, have been maintained as individual sheet maps, typically on Mylar or paper. As time and technology progressed, data has been upgraded to digital formats such as AutoCAD and GIS. These newer digital formats enable individual sheet maps to be combined into a single file-essentially a town-wide mosaic-creating a useful dataset for administrators and assessing personnel. Currently, more than 175 municipalities in New Hampshire use some type of digital parcel mapping.

The key element to a mosaic parcel map is being able to identify common attributes about all properties, regardless of municipality. CAMA systems are a powerful tool used by municipalities to maintain assessment information on each parcel. In New Hampshire, five major CAMA systems are used by nearly all municipalities. Each system maintains data in slightly different formats, but they all maintain the same fundamental data: property location, ownership, date of sale, land area, land use, building area, building, land and total assessments, as well as numerous other data points. Each of these systems has data export functions, which enable users to extract fundamental property data into easily accessible formats.

Historically, individual municipal datasets have not been combined due to the lack of standardization and differing data formats. At the municipal level, it is relatively simple to correlate parcel map and CAMA data creating an intelligent map. At a statewide level, it can be more challenging to combine these unique datasets into a cohesive statewide format.

Rather than attempting to dictate a standard, DRA-in partnership with UNH T2-has developed a less invasive, more practical solution. Since municipal data formats do not frequently change, the project team has created software tools to translate each unique municipal data set into a common format. This methodology enables the creation of a standardized, statewide dataset without requiring any changes at the municipal level. Further, it supports the maintenance of a sustainable data set, allowing municipal updates to be translated to the common format and integrated into the mosaic map efficiently. The result will be a sustainable, single GIS file that contains the parcel boundaries and fundamental property information for the entire state.

Property Assessment and Equalization
In conjunction with the mosaic map effort, the Property Appraisal Division has been focused on improving the system used to equalize local assessed values as part of Granite to Green. Equalization is the process of converting local assessed values into market value estimates for each municipality. This is a statutory duty carried out annually by DRA to ensure that property taxes are administered fairly and equitably across the state. The process of equalization is the cornerstone of making shared local tax rates (for county, shared school district and state property tax) comparable on a single standard of market value.

The mosaic map provides an invaluable tool for the state to efficiently and responsibly administer the property tax equalization process with a minimal burden to local communities. The process of carrying out the annual equalization study will be streamlined, incorporating direct data streams from the registries of deeds, municipalities and taxpayers, which will enable the department to capture all required assessment property transfer information rapidly.

The process will also make available to DRA and municipalities a more robust set of tools where custom ratio studies can be conducted with advanced controls for stratification and sales exclusion. These tools can be a great asset to local officials to ensure accurate assessments at the local level. One of the goals of the Equalization Software overhaul is to minimize the burden on municipalities in conducting the equalization process. This new system, coupled with the ability to e-file DRA's basic tax returns and forms, will bring Property Appraisal into the 21st century!

Opportunities for Inter-Agency Collaboration
Beyond the benefits that will be realized by DRA and municipal officials, there are many other positive benefits of this project. Other state agencies have been invited to enter into data-sharing agreements with DRA, which allows them to use the mosaic parcel map data for their internal operations. The ability for state officials at a variety of agencies, such as Transportation, Safety, Environmental Services, Health and Human Services, Resources and Economic Development, the Board of Tax and Land Appeals and others, to use this information will ensure more cohesion at the state level, minimizing redundant efforts and reducing costs. The DRA is committed to act as a good steward of the municipal data sets used to create the mosaic parcel map and is limiting distribution to state government agencies that agree to join with us in that effort.

The mosaic parcel map is seen as a vital disaster recovery tool. In New Hampshire, recent natural disasters like ice storms, floods and tornados have shown the need for a tool to rapidly assess damage following a disaster. The mosaic parcel map will enable officials to rapidly and accurately assess the extent of damage and expedite requests for federal aid to assist New Hampshire residents.

A Sustainable System with Mutual Benefit
Other states have launched initiatives to construct mosaic parcel maps before, some succeeding in developing a snapshot (a one-time compilation) parcel map that was not sustainable. Sustainability of New Hampshire's Mosaic Parcel Map is possible because of already occurring data updates at the local level.

Participating municipalities are asked to submit copies of their parcel maps and assessment data on an annual basis to ensure the map stays current. In return, the participants will receive standardized data sets that can be merged quickly for joint efforts and regional planning. In addition, many new data files and reports will be made available at no cost to the municipalities. DRA will also be providing a "data sharing pool" for municipalities that want to share their information with other communities.

The project continues on schedule for completion in September 2012 with the ongoing support of New Hampshire state, municipal and county officials. The system is a forward-looking advance for all of us in government at the state and local level. Together, we can build that future in imaginative and exciting ways.

Steve Hamilton is director of the Property Appraisal Division of the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration. Contact Steve at 603.271.2687 or by email.