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Lawmakers Look Into Aerial Reassessments of Kentucky Property Values

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
Henryk Sadura
Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building

Every four years, Kentucky counties are required to reassess property values and make a “physical” observation of each property according to state law.

But “physical” has taken on a new meaning for property owners around the state—elected property valuation administrators in 57 of Kentucky’s 120 counties now use aerial imagery called Pictometry to make assessments.

Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator Tony Lindauer told a legislative committee on Wednesday that his county found $35 million in undocumented property the first year his office used Pictometry.

“We’ve found that Pictometry is not only more efficient, but is actually more accurate,” Lindauer said.

Pictometry allows PVAs to look at aerial photos of properties to see if improvements such as additions have been made.

The process has come under fire as property values have been reassessed upward, especially in the Louisville neighborhoods of Crescent Hill, the Highlands, and Butchertown.

With more than 60,000 Louisville homes reassessed this year, there were reports of homes receiving 30, 40 and even 150 percent increases in property value from the last round of assessments.

“People in my district and my city are mad,” said Rep. Kevin Bratcher, a Louisville Democrat.

Bratcher has requested an investigation into the Jefferson County PVA and says lawmakers need to discuss whether “looking on a computer” counts as a physical inspection.

“The law says you need to make a physical inspection every four years. And I don’t know if that’s being done or not,” Bratcher said.

Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat and chair of the committee reviewing PVAs, said he was concerned by the legality of Pictometry until he saw the word “sight” under the Merriam-Webster definition of “physical.”

“I wasn’t as concerned about it once I realized ‘sight’ could be looking at it, but you don’t have to be present 60-feet in front of it to look at it—you can use other tools to look at it,” Riggs said.

John Gilderbloom, an urban affairs professor for the University of Louisville, said Jefferson County’s use of Pictometry has helped ensure that the city captured the “fair share” of taxes from neighborhoods that were becoming wealthier.

“Historically, in terms of the PVA battles that have gone on throughout the country, it’s always been the rich and powerful that squawk about taxes,” Gilderbloom said.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican, took issue with Gilderbloom’s praise of the system, saying that it maligned wealthy people who create jobs.

“I just get a little bit nervous when academics such as yourself come in here and start using terms like ‘tax justice’ and ‘fair share’ because it sounds to me like redistribution of wealth, which is socialism,” Thayer said.

Fayette County PVA David O’Neill provided another factor involved in the spike of property assessments, chalking it up to an increase in home sales in the wake of the Great Recession.

A property's assessed value is partially based on sales within its neighborhood. During the 2009-2011 period, O'Neill said his office couldn't justify increases in property values even in high-demand neighborhoods.

“When you’re looking at trying to base an assessment on sales and you’ve got that few sales, you just don’t have a basis for doing a reassessment—you just don’t have the critical mass of sales that you need,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill says that his office still makes an on-site visit to each of Fayette County’s 110,000 pieces of property and will continue to do so “as long as resources are available.”

Jefferson County’s PVA oversees 300,000 pieces of real estate.