Digital property files supercharge citywide Reassessment Project and online access.

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 City of Buffalo, New York

Digital Property Files Supercharge Virtual Assessments

Photo by: Payton Chung

The City of Buffalo migrated all 95,000 of its active parcel records – 200 filing cabinets-worth – to Laserfiche in anticipation of the citywide property reassessment project. Doing so enabled a virtual data collection process that drastically reduces the cost and labor required to perform assessments. In the longer term, online access to property records opens the door to striking improvements in efficiency and service for municipal and public users of property information.

“This Is How Government Has To Go.”

Brian Sullivan of Buffalo’s Assessment and Taxation Department has been ready to move away from paper files for years. “With paper only one person can look at a record at a time,” he said. “Once it’s out of the filing cabinet, for doing a field assessment, for example, it’s unavailable. Pages can go missing and we’ve had boxes of file cards stolen from appraisers’ cars out in the districts,” he said. “When a record is electronic, it’s permanent and everyone can possess it. I advocated for Laserfiche when we started planning for the citywide reassessment. After weighing the alternatives we included the conversion project as part of the overall budget.”

100 Years of Property Records Meet Their Future

Sullivan partnered with General Code for the Laserfiche side of things and Pirrello Enterprises Associates for document imaging with an assist for file vetting from the appraisal contractor that would later use the records to perform assessments. File preparation was key to quality control. “Some folders dated back to 1915 and were a mess,” said Sullivan. “We cleaned out documents that didn’t belong in the records, such as old newspaper clippings, and made sure records were filed with the right property. We turned the spaces where the filing cabinets used to be into a public hearing room and office space.”

Automation Streamlines Repository Building

General Code found several ways to leverage technology to accelerate the migration. “They took our RPS data (New York State’s Real Property Services) and auto built property folders to match,” said Sullivan. “Each of these has a Public, Private and Exemption subfolder. General Code designed a metadata template that includes key indexing information, including SBL number, address, district, property class code and the tax bill and account numbers. Because of this, after Pirrello Enterprises imaged, indexed and uploaded batches of files to our Laserfiche FTP site, a Laserfiche workflow could grab those files and sort them into the right folders automatically.”

“I can’t say enough about General Code. Everything we asked for, they found a way to make it happen,” added Sullivan. “They worked out moving legacy AppXtender image files of STAR [School Tax Relief Program] applications, Veteran exemptions and renewal forms into the matching exemption folders in Laserfiche. This lined up with my goal of getting the complete history of a parcel in one place. Plus they set us up with a ‘go-forward’ scanning process that I call a no-brainer.”

ABC’s of Laserfiche Energizes New Users

“Some people have trouble with change in general and letting go of paper in particular,” observed Sullivan. “General Code sent people to assist and train us who made it seem so simple. They did an exceptional job – we were blown away. Our trainer made Laserfiche training feel like ‘DOS For Dummies®,’ so easy for my staff and the reassessment contractors to get to work on it. People went from being afraid of Laserfiche and saying ‘It’ll never work’ to loving it and saying ‘This is nice’.”

“Click to View” Replaces Most Fieldwork and Boxes of Property Records

Reassessment requires appraisers to match the historical record against the actual property. “It would have cost us millions of dollars to send appraisers out to inspect and take photos of every property,” Sullivan pointed out. Instead, the City enlisted a company to collect GIS-keyed street view imaging from vehicle platforms and obtained current aerial imagery from another company. Married with Laserfiche, the technology enables virtual assessment data collection.

Instead of assessors driving out to properties with folders of documents, they refer to dual computer displays to do their work. On one side a GeoViewPort app from iLOOKABOUT shows street view and aerial imagery. “It’s great,” said Sullivan. “The appraiser can zoom in and see peeling paint or a cracked window. On the other display the appraiser can check what they see against that parcel’s history in the Laserfiche Public folder.” Sullivan pointed out that with this setup it takes seconds to check an aerial view against sketches and permits to spot a new addition to the house that would trigger an onsite inspection.

Self-Serve Property Record Access Becomes a Reality

In the Assessment and Taxation Department itself, Laserfiche will be saving time and labor on an ongoing basis. “Before, when somebody from another City department, like Strategic Planning, Fire or Real Estate came in to check to see if a use was grandfathered in for instance, it was a multi-step process. Our clerk had to figure out which storage room the filing cabinet was in, pull the folder and take it to an assessor who would interrupt what they were doing to filter the non-public contents before it could be passed over the counter. There might be copying involved.” Now other departments can get the information they need right at their desktops by accessing Sullivan’s folders in Laserfiche Weblink Portal.

“I reached out to the developers on the next version of RPS and asked them to include space for a Laserfiche button on the interface,” added Sullivan. “So we’ll be able to work in RPS and pop open the parcel file for research at will.”

User-level permissions and the folder structure are what make Laserfiche Weblink access secure. As Sullivan explained, “Only the three people who handle exemptions can see what’s in the Exemptions folder, like tax returns and Social Security numbers. The people who need to can reference private information, like corporate filings, in the Private folder. The Public folder is what people like commercial appraisers and environmental auditors who come in to do research will be able to see.”

That’s important for the future of the Assessment and Taxation Department. “We don’t have a huge staff,” said Sullivan. ”In fact we’re way down from a few years ago. We have to get more bang for the buck.” Moving from messy paper files to permanent, secure storage and controlled, easy-to-manage access with Laserfiche should go a long way to fueling efficiency for the City of Buffalo.


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