Local Government Websites: Where can I find that tax and utility information?

Over the past few weeks my daughters and I have been searching all 88 county websites in Ohio for property tax rates information and municipal websites (400+) for income tax information.  I thought that this would be a fairly easy task for all of us.  Was I ever wrong!  I can see the hows and whys of citizen anger toward government more clearly.  I  worked in local government throughout Ohio for nearly 30 and am familiar with how local government employees “code” their language so that we understand it.  I think that we do or best to make sure that we write things that everyone understands (hmmmm…look at the zoning code….).   However, when it comes to posting items of interest on our websites, we bury information (especially tax information).  Over the past15 years or so, I have tried to make a conscious effort to join the many local government reformers to make our operations more transparent.  While I can certainly tip my hat to many of my municipal colleagues, many of us have a long way to go — and none mores than those at the county level — especially treasurers and auditors.

Out of 88 County websites, approximately 50% of them bury tax rate information so deep that it takes a long time to find the actual information (or they try to create a “cool” website that is neither cool nor user-friendly).  I define “bury” as taking more than 4 clicks to get to the information, or do not have the information anywhere on the website.  I found 2 county websites where the tax rate information was 2-6 years old.

If you are business person or a citizen looking for tax rate information, this search is frustrating, time consuming and in many cases, ends up in a dead end.  I had to e-mail over a dozen county auditors to get the information or get directions to the information.  There was one county auditor that asked if he could fax the information because he did not know how to scan the information (!?!?!).  The good news is that 50% of Ohio County Auditors understand this and get it right!  But as governments overall, a grade of 50% is not very good.  Among the easiest from which to gather property tax tables were Ashtabula, Lake, Erie, Sandusky, Ottawa, Lucas, Wood and Defiance and Summit counties.  Kudos to these fine organizations!!!

I found it interesting and maybe just a little disturbing that most county auditors had their own websites, supplied it appears by the County Auditor’s Association (via Digital Data Technologies, Inc.).  In an era of consolidation, I have to ask if this is necessary.  Further, is there an additional cost to the County for this additional website.  What is really interesting is that many of these auditor association websites are not standard from county to county.  And who would think of looking under “forms” if one is looking for property tax rates?  Would it not make sense to put this information under a tab/button titled: County Property Tax Rates?”

I would say that overall, County websites are the worst of local government websites (though there are many village sites that are just as atrocious).  I used Google quite a bit to search for county websites.  Often times I found URL that purported to be a county website, when in fact the site was a county-wide chamber of commerce website.  About 25% of the  county websites look like they were built by a high schooler who just learned how to make a website.  County Commissioners and other county elected officials need to realize that their responsibility is to provide information in a clear, concise and easy to use format.  Geographically, the worst county websites were in the southern tier of Ohio counties.  We can rationalize that this is due to available funds in these areas; however, if a county wants an effective website, they can find the money to afford it.

Trying to find municipal income tax information is just as bad, if not worse.  Again, I thought with having some time working for local governments, I could find this information with some amount of ease.  No such luck.  It seems as though the finance directors think that all they need to do is provide a link to the organization that either (a) web-hosts their codified ordinances or (b) collects their income taxes.  Sure, a person can go to the Walter H. Drane website link.  However, finding the information it is still a search.  I needed to use the search function – and if a person does not know which search words to use, the exercise in frustration grows.  Worse yet, are the sites that only provide income tax form information.  What good are the forms if I do not know the rate?  It is not hard to put one sentence on a Finance Department webpage that says “The City of Here has an income tax rate of 1.5%.

I will give an Excellent Grade to Walter H Drane Company.  I can go to their website and find a drop down menu that includes a list of their customers.  But they can only provide information as good as what they get from their customers.  Fortunately, just over half of their clients’ ordinances used hyperlinks which expedited my searching.  I would say the same for R.I.T.A. – they provide an easy to use website format.  R.I.T.A. provides a list of clients and their respective tax ordinances, though I would estimate that more than half that I looked at did not make use of hypertext.  They were merely scanned copies.

More to the point: if I am a site selector or business looking at a particular community and I cannot find the information quickly and transparently, I am going to question the ability of that community to provide other services to me and I will look elsewhere, or will at least be wary of my soon-to-be dealings with that community (yes, I have confirmed this with business people).  I think it all goes back to mindset: to whom and for whom is the city providing information?  In my mind, the idea of a local government website (municipal and county) is a place where a person, any person, can access public information in as few steps as possible (less than 4 clicks) and as clearly as possible.  The information is about the public, not the local government.  The information must be citizen friendly and business friendly.

Some communities are outstanding about transparency, including the use of social media to announce events, construction, crime issues, and public meetings.  I can only encourage more local governments to use these technologies.  Kudos to the cities of Dublin and Willard for doing a terrific job on this.

Looking at the issue of utility rates.  No one gets a passing grade, except Painesville, Sebring, Canal Fulton and Oak Harbor.  Of course, as self-serving as this is, they are BARC customers.  BARC provides an easy to use calculator so that anyone, a business, a resident can go on a city’s website to get property tax, income tax, water, sewer and municipal electric information at their fingertips in seconds.  There are 415 cities and villages over the population of 1500 in Ohio, and there seems to be almost that many formats of water and sanitary sewer rates and billings.  Of course, I am not sure if this is due to the practices of  engineering firms – who are after used in performing water and sewer rate studies and recommend future rates.

The same goes for municipal electric utility communities.  I have had economic development officials complain that their electric utility colleagues hold that information to their chest like a flush in a poker game, imploring the complexity of rate structure; that no one can understand the rate system but them.  Those folks need a lesson in customer service.  I will concede that trying to figure out electrical costs is very complicated.  However, that does not preclude the idea that a model cannot be made for the community’s salesperson to be able to sell the community electric rates in an understandable format.  Again, this is the reason for BARC.  This tool helps the ED folks do their job more efficiently, effectively, and economically.

I have covered a lot of territory here.  The main idea is that public officials have a responsibility and a duty to provide information in a clear, easy to use and easy to find format for our respective taxpayers and future taxpayers.  Take a second look at your website or ask your next door neighbor to find certain information on your website.  You just might be surprised at the response.  Then call me.  At CDJ, our mission is to help local governments improve how they distribute information and create smarter citizens in the process.  See BARC here: http://www.cdjconsulting.net/the-business-assistance-recruitment-calculator-©
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About Economic Development Data Services, Inc.

EDDS is a company focused on providing effective, efficient solutions for local governments in the areas of community and economic development and strategic planning. We offer the BARC - Business Assistance Recruitment Calculator - tool and website solutions in developing economic development websites. Our new website is www.econdevdataservices.com
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