Meridian Star

June 22, 2013

Officials hope 'big picture' will have smaller cost

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     It's often said there is safety in numbers but county officials are hoping there are savings in numbers as well.

     Lauderdale County Tax Assessor James Rainey said a different way of getting aerial photographs for use by the county could offer significant savings to taxpayers.

    The county has to update its aerial photographs about every eight years, he said, and Lauderdale County's turn is almost here. For better visibility results, the work won't start until leaves are off the trees this winter, but in the meantime, Lauderdale is among 20 counties seeking to enter an agreement with each other to offset the cost of the photography.

    On Monday, the Lauderdale Board of Supervisors approved Rainey's  request to enter in to the agreement, which is expected to include Lafayette, Pontotoc, Lee, Tallahatchie, Chickasaw, Monroe, Grenada, Webster, Clay, Lowndes, Carroll, Montgomery, Choctaw, Oktibbeha, Humphreys, Winston, Noxubee, Neshoba, and Kemper counties.

    In order for the project to move forward, the Mississippi Attorney General's office will have to sign off on the inter-local agreement, Rainey said.

    A joint project started out with some coastal counties three years ago, where counties pooled their resources to keep the cost down. A second set of Mississippi counties also found the joint venture saved money. Rainey said the savings he has heard about anecdotally range from $100,000 in some counties to $400,000 in others. The actual cost and savings won't be known until after bids come in later this year.

    Blake Wallace, project administrator, said he was also involved in the most recent project, during which 14 counties joined in to pay for aerial photos.

    "There was one county that had already priced the photos going it alone," Wallace said. "They jumped in with our group and the price for them was about 40 percent lower. It can vary with counties, but the numbers are going to be somewhere in that neighborhood."

    It works out better economically, Wallace said, because it allows the photography service to get more than one county at a time. That is especially beneficial if it is in contiguous counties, he said.

    "The planes can shoot longer, they can stay up longer and they don't use as much film," Wallace said.

    It's a competitive bidding process as well, Wallace said. Last time around, about eight aerial photography businesses bid the job.

    Of Lauderdale County's 45,000 parcels of property, some are not easily accessible or visible from roads. That's one of the reasons it is important to have good aerial photos, according to Theresa Bell, deputy assessor.

    "We need aerial photography in order to capture improvements in the field that otherwise we couldn't see from the road if they had a large amount of property," Bell said. "It also helps us in placing our parcel boundaries against the actual ground detail that is shown with that aerial photo."

    In addition, she said, the photos help determine how the land is being used, which is important when it is being used for crops, pasture or timber. Property that has timber on it assesses for a lower value than some crops because timber prices have been down for the past few years, said Rainey.

    The Mississippi Department of Revenue issues an annual report telling tax assessors what the value is on land that is used for agriculture. The property owner's tax bill is based on those numbers.

     "It's really beneficial to the taxpayer that they could have had property that was cultivated land because there's a significant difference in value in cultivatable land to timber land, which is lower. The state sets that, not this office," Rainey said.

    Photos also help appraisers locate structures when they are out looking at property, he said. Other county and city departments benefit from aerial photos as well, such as the emergency 911 staff, permitting and planning offices. Since the maps are part of the public record, they are also accessed by people in real estate, banking, timber companies, insurance companies, and others.