In conducting some research over the past year, we encountered a regrettable example of government keeping basic public information hidden. We asked for a breakdown of the total assessed value of each county by land and improvements. (Improvements are any structure on the land.) All we wanted was county totals, not individual parcel data. We did not think this was a complicated request, and all of this is public information.
Unfortunately, many counties do not track the land and improvement data separately in their software systems, so they were unable to provide us the requested info. (I think they should be required to track the data in that manner, but that is another issue.) Some counties that do track those valuations separately in their software quickly sent over the requested information for free. Other counties requested small amounts of money for the work. No problem there.
So far, so good. I was disappointed in the success rate of the information request, but at least every county was straight with us or sent us a reasonable estimated bill. Every county, that is, except Grundy.
The Grundy County Assessor demanded $9,000.
It was $9,382, to be exact. One dollar per parcel in that north central Missouri county, even though we did not want parcel data, just cumulative data. We pointed out to the assessor that we are a research institute and requested that he waive the fees. He declined and wrote, “I have a very large investment to protect.” And then it got good.
We noticed that most of the counties that provided us with the information used the same software, and the software company’s name was at the bottom of those replies. We went to that company’s website looking for public customer lists, etc. (This was not about Grundy County at this point. We realized that we needed to find all the counties that used this assessment software so we could make sure we at least had their assessment data.) The software company’s website lists client testimonials, and who do you think was listed among their clients? That’s right, Grundy County.
So, the Grundy County assessor was demanding more than $9,000 to provide us with public information that he could have gathered from their software in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
About a dozen Missouri counties using this system provided us with the public information we requested quickly and at no charge. When we pointed this out to the assessor, and asked him to justify the demand for $9,382, he got angry and wrote, “I don’t want to do business with you anyway,” and added that we should “get the information you need somewhere else.” This, of course, ignored the fact that we are a charitable research organization, not a business, and that there is no place to get Grundy County assessment data except from the Grundy County assessor’s office. Also, just whose investment did the assessor think he was protecting?
Our initial request was on June 4, 2012. We filed a Sunshine Law violation complaint with the Missouri Attorney General’s office on July 2. Over the ensuing months, we heard some vague promises that we would get the information. To their credit, the AG’s office stayed on it. Finally, we received it, for free, on Tuesday — March 19, 2013. Even though the original project we wanted it for has been completed for a long time, the data is still helpful for another project I am working on. Plus, it was the principle of the thing . . .
It took more than nine months for us to receive a simple request of public information that probably took the office 2 minutes to send us once they realized they had no choice. The Sunshine Law is important. Keeping public information hidden by obscene fees is immoral and wrong. Apparently, Grundy County Assessor Don Stotts does not feel that way. Thankfully, however, he (or at least his assistant who sent us the data) finally changed his mind.
By the way, 25 percent of the assessed valuation in Grundy County is land, and 75 percent is improvements. This entire nine-month controversy was about us being able to write the preceding sentence.