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Manager snags better deal on county maps

The Property Appraiser's Office will spend $90,000, a fraction of what the county's real estate office pays for sharper photographic maps.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


TAMPA -- Every three years, Hillsborough's real estate office commissions a detailed photographic map of the county to help in everything from planning roads to platting new subdivisions.

But when Nancy Halvorsen heard the price last year, she thought there had to be a better way. The overall cost was $300,000, and the Property Appraiser's Office, where Halvorsen works, was being asked to chip in $80,000 of the bill.

"I thought, "Do we really need to be spending that?' " Halvorsen said. "It can't be that much. Just personally, from a management standpoint, I felt uncomfortable with that."

So Halvorsen, the property appraiser's Geographic Information System manager, passed. Instead, she found another company that was able to produce nearly identical maps at a fraction of the cost. And she also lined up other government offices and several private companies to help pick up the tab.

The images aren't as sharp close up, but the package comes with several perks.

The photographs will be updated each year, which is important in the Property Appraiser's Office since hundreds of new parcels are developed in Hillsborough each month. They'll be made available to the public for free online. And they come in color, allowing code enforcers to spot new unpermitted pools or environmental planners to see wetlands.

"There are a number of uses we could make out of this," said Dale Coe, assistant director of finance and administration for the Environmental Planning Commission, after seeing a demonstration Friday.

The county's real estate office had provided black-and-white sheet photographs of the county taken every three years. But last year, the office went with a new, $300,000 system -- more than twice what it paid previously -- that can be viewed and manipulated on a computer.

In the past, the Property Appraiser's Office and the city of Tampa helped pay the cost. But the price hike last year sent Halvorsen looking elsewhere.

She found a company that would photograph the whole county, including Egmont Key, plus a 11/2-mile buffer into surrounding counties. The cost: $72 a mile for territory spanning 1,238 miles, or just under $90,000, less than a third of what it is costing the real estate office.

The cost will fall 10 percent in each of the next two years, to $55.75 a mile by year three. The company providing the images retained the rights to sell its images to others, but 15 percent of what it sells will go toward offsetting the property appraiser's costs.

Further, Halvorsen lined up smaller government offices and private businesses such as engineering firms and TECO that were interested in having their own copies. In all, nearly three dozen offices or businesses expressed an interest in paying $2,000 each for copies, though Halvorsen is still firming up commitments from some of them.

The resolution on photographs taken for the property appraiser are not as sharp as those taken for the real estate office. They become distorted sooner when the computer zooms closer.

But they are still good enough to spot roof types or pools or home additions that might have been built without permits. Computerized property line maps can be drawn on top of the photographs and checked for accuracy.

Robert Weston, the county surveyor who oversees the other pictorial, said his office needs the sharper images. Road engineers can now plan speed bump projects, new lighting projects or turn lane additions without having to leave the office. That isn't possible with the other system.

Because of the higher quality, the images are in high demand from engineering companies and others, who pay for copies, helping to offset the costs to taxpayers. So he is sticking with his system.

"As surveyors, we strive for accuracy," Weston said. "In the Property Appraiser's Office, they only need this for informational purposes. We're doing it more for design and planning."

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