Tulsa County: March 2009 Archives

NOTE: I was able to get to the Journal Record stories below earlier today through links posted in the paper's Twitter feed. As I get ready to publish this, the stories now appear to be accessible to subscribers only.

NOTE 2: Articles are still inaccessible to non-subscribers, but an entry on the Journal Record's blog has summaries of the articles.

In a strongly-worded editorial in the March 18, 2009, Journal Record, Ted Streuli, the paper's managing editor, writes that Tulsa County's "exorbitant, unconscionable fees to view and print public records clearly violate state law, and [Tulsa County Clerk Earlene] Wilson gets away with it because the law doesn't have any teeth."

I encourage you to read the entire editorial as well as two related news stories in the same edition:

Assessor, clerk upgrade to incompatible systems
Tulsa County policies lead to debate on Open Records Act

There are three different sets of public records under consideration:

The County Clerk keeps track of how land is subdivided into parcels (plat maps), who owns which piece of land, and what encumbrances exist -- liens, mortgages, easements, covenants on a given parcel. Records are kept of each transaction affecting the state of a parcel.

The County Assessor estimates the value of each parcel based on fair market value, based on the physical characteristics of the property and factors like zoning.

The County Treasurer collects property (ad valorem) taxes based on the assessed value and then disburses the collected money to school districts, municipalities, the county and other taxing authorities according to law.

In Tulsa County, none of these records are freely available online. You can go to the offices in question to look at the physical records, or you can pay a monthly fee to have access. As Streuli notes, you not only have to pay to access the information, you have to pay $1 a page to print a copy with your own printer, paper, and ink. Streuli says this is a violation of the Oklahoma Open Records Act:

Until recently, you could find all of this information at Tulsa Library branches, using a special IBM terminal emulator that runs on selected library computers. You can still find out who owns a piece of property, what its assessed value is (along with the physical characteristics that determine the value), and the current taxes (including whether those taxes have been paid).

It used to be possible, when looking at the combined display for a parcel, to push a button and see a list of transactions on that parcel over the last decade or so. But the last time I used the system those features weren't available. The options for viewing these County Clerk records had vanished from the main menu as well.

Many smaller Oklahoma counties make their county clerk records available freely online. For many counties you can even view and print images of records for free.

Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan (a former Republican state representative) has one of the best public records websites in the country. On his homepage, he writes:

With more than 6 million property searches so far this year we've been recognized as one of the most advanced records search websites in the country where anyone with internet access can spend a few minutes or longer looking up property records in Oklahoma County.

Using the Public Access System you can find information about any property in Oklahoma County. Including the sale price, market value, assessed value, and legal description. Using the interactive Geographic Information System (GIS) Map, you can see a digital aerial color image of your home, find out which school district the property is located within, who represents you in the state legislature or congress, even see if your home or another property could be subject to flooding....

The Oklahoma County Assessor's Office has embraced technology and works hard to make access to public records and information a priority.

I'm happy to read that Sullivan's counterpart, Tulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel, has the same goal in mind:

Former title company operator Yazel spent $953,467 to upgrade the assessor's 262,000-parcel database with RealWare by Colorado Customware, the software behind the award-winning Oklahoma County assessor's Web site.

Seeking to emulate Oklahoma County and promote the economic benefit of free and open records access, Yazel said he hopes to unveil a new Tulsa County assessor's site this year.

If you're gasping at the cost of the software, keep in mind that the Assessor's office has to have it regardless of whether the information is made available over the web. The Assessor needs to keep records of every parcel in the county, with details like square footage and outbuildings and quality of materials and number of bathrooms and with the capability to translate recent sales of comparable properties into fair market value. The marginal cost of making the information available to the general public online is negligible. Same thing is true for the County Clerk's records.

Not only is the marginal cost negligible, it actually saves the county money to make the information available online, as more people can get the information they need without taking the time of a county employee.

Oklahoma County Assessor Chief Deputy Larry Stein said his office achieved those results with its Web site upgrades.

"It saves us from having to have a whole bunch of people streaming into our office every day when they can get that off the Web," said Stein.

Wilson and Tulsa County Treasurer Dennis Semler have both cited privacy concerns along with cost recovery as a justification for limiting access to paying customers and library computer terminals. The cost issue is bogus: The county offices have a legal duty to maintain the records and a responsibility to the taxpayers to tap into the productivity benefits of computerization. The County Clerk even collects fees on each document processed.

The privacy issue is bogus, too: The records are public and are already available. If you have a way to make money off of the information -- whether it's as a lender, an appraiser, or a real estate investor -- you'll spring for the cost of using the online system, or you'll pay an employee to go down to the County Courthouse and collect information. A homeowner who needs to track developments that could potentially threaten his property value or a journalist who is researching a story has to get to the library when it's open, tie up a library computer, and stop when his daily allotment of computer time is used up.

Tulsa County officials aren't protecting privacy if property records are easily accessible for a small number of people and hard to get for the rest of us.

But don't look for anything to change in the near future:

As long as Tulsa County citizens express satisfaction with the service, Semler expects the county budget board to stand pat.

So if you've ever been frustrated by having to drive to the library to look up land records, if you don't think you should have to pay twice for easy access -- once through your taxes and again through special fees -- if you want the County to obey the Open Records Act, contact your County Commissioner, the County Clerk, and the County Treasurer and let them know you want them to work with Ken Yazel to provide free online access to land records. You'll find all the contact information you need at the Tulsa County website.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa County category from March 2009.

Tulsa County: November 2008 is the previous archive.

Tulsa County: September 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



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