McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County's assessor will make changes to the county's property search website following action at the county commissioners' weekly meeting Monday morning.
Danny Berndt of rural Danbury, Nebraska, a Red Willow County property owner and tax payer, requested that the assessor remove all photographs from the assessor's online property records available at www.co.red-willow.ne.us/webpages/assesso... and clicking on Red Willow -- GIS Workshop Property Search.
Assessor Sandra Kotschwar proposed a compromise to commissioners and recommended that the property search website include photographs of only each property's "primary structure," and not all the outbuildings. The primary structure is usually a house, but Kotschwar explained that on a rural property with no house or an unused/abandoned house, the "primary structure" might be the barn or an outbuilding.
Berndt told Kotschwar and commissioners that including photographs of his all of his properties on the website is "an invasion of my privacy." Another property owner and tax payer Agnes Roberts of rural McCook, agreed with Berndt, asking, "Why should someone in Timbuktu know what I've got?"
Berndt said that people cannot physically come onto his property without trespassing and breaking the law, but that the county's Internet website allows anyone in the world to "come onto his property" without permission.
Berndt said that 99 to 100 percent of rural people "don't like this. There is a sense of invasion of privacy."
County commissioner Vesta Dack told Berndt, "It (the information) is detailed and it is accessible. There is kind of a feeling of invasion."
Berndt told commissioners and Kotschwar that he has no objection to the information -- owner(s), address and legal description, type of structure(s), purchase date and price, taxes, dimensions of building(s) -- being available on the website, nor does he object to the availability of the photographs in Kotschwar's office. He just doesn't want photographs on the property search website, he said.
Commissioner Steve Downer told Berndt that he feels his complaints about the photographs are "unfounded. These (photographs) aren't real time. They can be up to six years old."
Kotschwar said the property information is public record, but it was her office's decision to include the photographs on the website. Some counties do not include photographs of properties on the websites, she said; some include only a house or primary site. The use of photographs is not regulated by state statute, said commission chairman Earl McNutt.
Kotschwar said she checked with state officials. "It is public information," she said. "We're not doing anything wrong."
Kotschwar said the website grew from the county's implementation of GIS software several years ago that allowed her office to more accurately measure agricultural land and determine soil types.
"There's lots of wonderful information on the website," she said. "We need the pictures for our own office's valuing. I would hate to lose the pictures in the office. I'd hate to do away with all of it."
"There are lots of people using the website," McNutt said. Kotschwar reported that an average of 626 people access the website each month; the heaviest use is typically during June and July when property owners/tax payers are researching information for tax valuation protests and comparable properties.
Others using the website on a regular basis are real estate agents, insurance agents, mortgage company personnel, appraisers, those doing title searches, potential property buyers and bidders wanting to purchase properties at county tax sales.
Berndt said he's not concerned with making these people's jobs easier by providing photographs on the property search website. "The information's there. Just remove the photographs. Rural residents would feel more comfortable," he said. "We're not affecting Sandy's (Kotschwar's) office. Her office will run as it always has."
Kotschwar said the website has definitely resulted in fewer customers coming into her office requesting the same information available now on the website.
Berndt suggested that commissioners "run a trial. Remove all pictures and see if you get any complaints."
Kotschwar suggested a compromise -- running a picture of only the "primary structure" on each property and eliminating pictures of secondary structures, on all properties throughout the county, not just rural properties. The photographs would still be available in the assessor's office. "I'd have no problem with that," she said. "That's a starting point."
Downer said he would not object to removing photographs of outbuildings. "We're still serving the public," he said. Downer continued that he does not want to meddle with the operations of individual county offices. "It's Sandy's decision how she wants to operate her office," he said.
Dack agreed, saying she does not want to micro-manage county offices.
Commissioners voted unanimously to support Kotschwar's recommendation to remove pictures of all but each property's primary structure from the county's property search website.
Kotschwar did not discourage Berndt from moving forward with his concerns, or from contacting state senators about the possibility of addressing restrictions on the use of photographs on property search websites.