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Saturday, February 23, 2008

West Virginia Officials Try o Yank Tax Maps Off Website?

Kanawha County (W.Va.) tax officials have put off an injunction against a Harrison County software designer to see if the state Supreme Court weighs in on a controversial tax map issue.

Seneca Technologies, which designs software for the oil and gas industry and others, went to court last year under the state Freedom of Information Act to obtain electronic versions of all county tax maps.

Counties charge $8 a page for copies of their tax maps. Officials for Seneca Technologies filed a FOIA request with the state tax department for the maps, but were told it would cost more than $167,000 for all 20,936 maps in the state.

Company executives thought the cost was too high. Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger agreed, ruling that there's nothing in state law setting the price of electronic versions of the tax maps. State law dictates that government bodies can charge "reasonable" costs to reproduce electronic information.

Seneca executives got electronic copies of the tax maps from the state for a fee of $20, then posted the maps on their Web site, making them available for free.

"The applications for [this information] are tremendous," said Patrick Lough a software engineer for Seneca Technologies.

Posting the tax maps online can save countless trips to county courthouses looking up map information, Lough said.

"Everyone who has to do mineral extraction has to do map work at the courthouse," he said. While online maps would be particularly useful to oil and gas executives, the information would also be useful to others, Lough said.

Company lawyers argue members of the public can use the information contained in the maps to cross-check property tax information, hikers can use the information to make sure they aren't trespassing on private property, colleges and universities can use the information for research projects and emergency responders can use the information to see who owns certain pieces of property.

Lough also said Seneca Technologies plans to link the tax map information with other databases and sell the information to potential clients.

But Kanawha County Assessor Phyllis Gatson fears Seneca Technologies is hijacking the maps for personal gain.

More here.

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