Easier to use than to produce
by Carol Goodhue | inewsource freelancer
A bit of serendipity last summer led to the searchable map that anchors inewsource’s continuing coverage of extra property taxes, called Mello-Roos.
Kevin Crowe, who did the research for the app before moving to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said he was pursuing data on assessments for another story when he “realized that there was a far larger pot of money going into Mello-Roos districts.” Property owners in San Diego County paid more than $195 million in these fees in 2012.
Crowe said his colleague, inewsource investigative reporter Joanne Faryon, saw the potential for a user-friendly app “a long, long time ago.” It was a way to personalize the tangle of taxes collected for schools.
“He took something super complicated and squished it into something easy to use,” Faryon said of Crowe’s work. “That’s the brilliance of this app.”
Using the interactive map, people in San Diego County can find out if they’re among the one in 10 homeowners paying Mello-Roos fees and compare their bill with what their neighbors pay. In one Poway district near Del Sur Elementary, some homeowners ante up more than $9,000 annually.
From the beginning, the research was challenging. “There aren’t many people who know a lot about these things who are willing to comment,” Crowe said.
Developers and school districts both benefit from the Mello-Roos law, a method of raising revenue – usually for school construction — that skirts Proposition 13’s limits on property taxes.
Developers can create a Mello-Roos district on undeveloped property and vote single-handedly to levy taxes on future home-buyers to pay for what Crowe called “ridiculously awesome” new schools that make it easier to sell new homes.
Crowe said developers and school officials were reluctant to discuss how Mello-Roos fees are used and monitored. It took him a week or more just to find out who was minding the Mello-Roos money at some school districts.
He made more headway talking with the state treasurer about the bonds issued by many Mello-Roos districts. Then he turned to the county treasurer/tax collector’s office, which collects Mello-Roos fees along with property taxes.
Getting the data from that office wasn’t a problem, Crowe said. “As soon as I could articulate what I wanted, they were ready to produce the reports for me.”
However, those reports came as PDFs, which meant Crowe had to do considerable processing to get them ready for analysis and display: He used Xpdf software to convert the information to text, cleaned it up using programming known as regular expressions, wrangled it into a tab-delimited format to separate information by parcel, and imported the tax data into a database manager called MySQL.
Then he began what he considers the “heavy lifting” for the project.
An ESRI product called ArcView enabled him to work with the parcel data that appears in the map online. Because there are about 1 million separate parcels in the county, he decided to limit the detailed information to parcels with Mello-Roos fees attached: about 100,000.
He did all this over the course of a couple months, working on it off and on between stories for the 2012 elections.
The next step was figuring out with developer Matt Wynn and designer Ben Vankat how the app should look and work.
The final product that you see on our website opens with an explanatory home page summing up what Mello-Roos fees do and allowing you to search a specific address. If there are Mello-Roos fees tied to that parcel, a map shows parcel outlines for up to 150 nearby properties, all color-coded according to amounts paid. If there are no Mello-Roos fees for that address, a note says so and invites viewers to look at some of the highest fees around, near Del Sur Elementary in Poway Unified school district.
The searchable map is a useful conversation-starter and super easy to use, but there are big gaps to fill in the story of Mello-Roos.
“It’s as simple as it gets in telling you what you pay and who you’re paying,” Crowe said, “but it doesn’t tell you what you’re paying for because we don’t really know.”
But inewsource is digging into the details. Stay tuned.