For many years, county websites across New York State have maintained real property tax information databases that are easily searchable by property owner name, address or tax map parcel number. Searching one of these databases by name would quickly call up a list of all properties owned by that person within the entire county. Recently, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney issued a decision to preclude searches of the Onondaga County real property tax information database by using the name of the property owner, purportedly in the interest of protecting the privacy (and thus the safety) of law enforcement personnel who own residential real property. Now, the only way for the public at large to search Onondaga County’s real property tax information database is by address or tax map parcel number. The change makes it more difficult for real property professionals and common citizens to research sales prices and assessment information needed to determine whether a grievance should be filed challenging a property’s assessed value.
However laudable the reason behind the Onondaga County Executive’s decision might be, eliminating the search by name function on the Onondaga County database will not necessarily improve officer safety or protect officers’ personal information from disclosure. For example, the Real Property Tax Law requires each municipality to publish a copy of its tentative assessment roll and final assessment roll for each assessment year on its county’s website. These assessment rolls contain the names and addresses of each property owner within that municipality. In fact, although a little more effort is required, many of these assessment rolls are posted in such a way that they can be searched by name. Accordingly, although access to such information has become more cumbersome, the information sought to be eliminated by the Onondaga County Executive is still widely available on the Onondaga County website.
Many question the County Executive’s decision and motives. The change has caused an uproar among real property professionals and citizens who regularly used the site to search sales and assessment information. Even journalists, who used the site to verify information, are complaining. The new County Clerk Sandra Schepp said, “The removal of the name-search function makes access to this public information much more cumbersome.” Ryan McMahon, chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature, stated that there needs to be a happy medium and suggested eliminating only the names of law enforcement officers from Onondaga County’s database. While McMahon’s suggestion may be inconvenient for database administrators, it is preferable to inconveniencing the public at large.
In response to public outcry, Mahoney claims that she is looking for ways to balance safety with public needs and is considering ways to make the real property tax database fully searchable by those with a legitimate interest. While that may help real property professionals and journalists, it does nothing to ease the plight of regular taxpayers seeking information to support an assessment challenge.
Since the information Mahoney eliminated from the County-wide database is still available in municipal assessment rolls that are required by law to be posted on the County’s website, her decision achieves little, if any, enhancement in officer safety, at significant practical cost to taxpayers and the public at large. Mahoney should reconsider her decision and once again make the County’s database searchable by property owner.