We had an interesting discussion at the County Board Policy Committee meeting on December 7th about the policy of the Supervisor of Assessments regarding searching on-line for the owners of real estate in the county.
Here is a brief time line regarding this issue. About five years ago we added a feature to the County Clerk website that allowed people to search for tax amounts and rates of every parcel in the county. These searches could be done either by property identification number (PIN) or by address. We routinely would get a hundred hits a day on this page from bankers, Realtors, and homeowners. Our tax department saw a dramatic drop in the number of phone calls they received from people wanting tax rates. A few people (under 10) over the last five years have requested that we have a search by name. However, most people did not have a problem with the lack of a name search because they always had at least the address of the parcel that they were looking for.
About two years ago the county technology staff developed a program to allow people to access tax information on the treasurer’s website. This search hit on more dynamic data and informed the voter of not just the property tax amount and rate, but also how much had been paid on the tax bill. Once again, the Treasurer allowed for searches by PIN or address, but not by name. This year, we decided to stop creating our own database and direct people instead to the Treasurer’s database which is more dynamic and has more functionality.
The Supervisor of Assessments asked both me and the County Treasurer to modify our database search engines to allow for name searches. We both rejected this option. I’ll explain my reasons, which I believe closely mirror those of the Treasurer.
All this information is a public record. There is no question about that and neither the Treasurer nor I have a problem with disseminating the information. The Treasurer has a terminal in his office for people to search tax records. If someone comes into his office to request information about a property owner, the Treasurer would give it out without hesitation. The same goes with requests in this office. What we don’t want is to make this information easily accessible to people who may not have the best purposes in mind. For that reason, requests to search tax information by name must come by phone, in person, or through the mail. From my standpoint, this provides an extra layer of security by forcing requestors to shed at least some of their anonymity.
Why should citizens care about this? Very simply, some people have good reasons for wanting their address kept private. Police officers, judges, and other law enforcement officials often have unlisted phone numbers to prevent harassment. Women who have orders of protection would like to prevent the subject of that order from finding out where they live. Seniors who are receiving tax relief because of their income level would like that information to be more private. Granted, all this information is available by coming to our offices, but to make it easy to get I believe is unwise.
There have been examples in this country of where people have gotten personal information about another individual and used it to track them down. Additionally there are thousands of examples of identity theft out there which can be facilitated by too much information being too easily accessed.
I spoke in opposition to allowing internet searches of tax information by name at the Policy Committee. When I raised the fact that your Illinois Driver’s license information is not available on line, one Board Member claimed that the information was not public record. As you can see from the Rules and Regulations of the Secretary of State, your driver’s license is public record (except for personal information such as height and weight). You can also see here that the Secretary of State makes the information available, but puts some restrictions on it such as requiring requestors to be identified and informing the person whose information is being requested.
I don’t advocate using the rules of the Secretary of State on our internet site. I only bring this up to demonstrate that other government agencies put reasonable restrictions on the dissemination of personal information. For Champaign County to do this is not unreasonable.
One board member also suggested something along the line of how times have changed and this is the world we now live in. I rebuke that kind of philosophy quite frankly. We can either allow technology to control our lives, or we can control technology. To suggest that we have to accede to every new advance in technology is to become a slave to that technology. Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean that we MUST do it.
These points were brought up at the Policy Committee meeting but they appeared to have little impact on either the Supervisor of Assessments or the attending County Board Members. This issue is out of my hands, and in some ways is out of the hands of the County Board as the Supervisor of Assessments has some measure of control over the operations of his office. Nevertheless, I believe that people who are concerned about this issue should contact the Supervisor of Assessments or their County Board Members to express their views.