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Officials detailed OK aerial photos despite cost, privacy concerns

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A new type of aerial photography approved by Columbus and Bartholomew County would save money on property assessments and help with public safety and engineering projects, officials said, but some residents have raised concerns about privacy issues.

The city and county agreed to a $227,085 contract with Pictometry International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., to provide the photographs to be shot early next year and possibly again in 2017. The photography would be incorporated into the county’s online geographic information system and would provide almost 3-D quality photos of the community.

Lowell Davis, Indiana district manager for Pictometry, said the company flies a modified Cessna airplane with cameras facing north, south, east, west and straight down when it makes its photography passes over a county.

When the images are incorporated into the online system, viewers can see all sides of buildings, he said. The photos then can be used for measurements such as height and the square footage of a building’s footprint. More than 40 Indiana counties use the company’s service, he said.

Officials see benefit

Lew Wilson, the county assessor, said the photos would be accurate enough to able to perform more of his department’s reassessment work online, rather than needing to go onto people’s property to perform measurements. Some of the functions also would be automated to allow for easier updates, such as finding taxpayers who have made changes or improvements to the property.

Other communities use the more detailed photos to provide details to emergency responders such as police or firefighters, Wilson said. Because of the 3-D nature of the photography, those officials can find out more information about entrances and possible floor plans for every building in the community.

Wilson said it would mean a cost savings for his department as assessors would be able to work more effectively, without running up gasoline and vehicle costs. During the last reassessment, four workers were driving the county to check properties, Wilson said.

After talking to officials from other counties that use the service, he estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the work could be done from the office.

Several city departments would use the new imagery in their work, including the city engineer, planning and Columbus City Utilities, said City Attorney Jeff Logston. The county would pay about 59 percent of the cost, and the city would pay 41 percent, under the interlocal agreement. The county’s higher price includes an element of the software that would provide the county assessor with automated updates of property owners who make improvements between the 2014 and 2017 imagery flights.

The cost is comparable to what the city and county paid the state for flyover photos, last shot in 2011, Logston said. However, those state-provided images were only shot top-down, he said.

Mark Alexander, the Johnson County assessor, said his county signed a six-year contract with Pictometry in 2010, locking in a price of about $180,000. However, he said that his office pays the entire price, rather than splitting it with cities like Greenwood or Franklin. Ideally, he would like to develop a similar partnership to the one being proposed in Bartholomew County.

In Johnson County, the images are shared with departments such as health, police and fire and with the cities and towns. He said it has been helpful in verifying data on reassessments, such as the number of floors of a house or the construction materials.

The Columbus Board of Public Works and Safety approved the agreement between the city and county at its Nov. 12 meeting, but Bartholomew County Commissioners agreed Nov. 18 to hold off on approval over concerns about privacy and the funding. On Monday, they voted to approve the agreement.

Cost, privacy concerns

Columbus resident Mike Lovelace protested the cost-split at the commissioners meeting Nov. 18, saying that because city residents are also county residents, they should not be paying twice. In his view, the county should pick up the entire amount, he said. Lovelace said he planned to contact City Council members to protest the extra charges.

County resident John Dishinger and Commissioner Rick Flohr said they had privacy concerns over the photography and its detailed depictions of property. Dishinger suggested that it was a short step between the updated imagery and drones flying over the county gathering information.

Wilson said that he thought there were fewer privacy concerns raised by the aerial photos than by assessors having to go onto property to make their calculations.

The commissioners agreed to table the agreement for at least a week to allow Lovelace or other residents time to make their case on the cost split or other concerns.

Wilson and Logston said the photos would need to be shot in the next few months while the leaves are off the trees to get a good result.

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