July 27, 2018 - From the July, 2018 issue

Jeff Prang Modernizing Property Assessment for a 21st Century Los Angeles County

The Assessor’s Office has an obscure but critical function: to determine the value of millions of properties, and by extension, the revenue that flows to local government for core public services. It’s Los Angeles County Assessor Jeff Prang’s mission to make this essential information easily available across departments and to the public—even if he has to create an entirely new technology to do it. In TPR, Prang explains the innovative public-private partnership that could radically upgrade municipalities throughout the state.


Jeff Prang

“There’s a good chance that our system will become the new state standard for assessment technology in California. That is quite a legacy for my office.” - LA County Assessor Jeff Prang

First, explain your primary responsibilities as the Assessor for Los Angeles County, and your priorities in that office.

Jeff Prang: Let me begin with what I am not: I am not the tax collector. As property appraisers, my office’s main focus is to assess all taxable property in LA County and generate the annual Assessment Roll as a foundation for the property tax system. In many ways, the Assessor’s Office is the most important local agency, because no other agency gets to do their job until I’ve done mine—and if I don’t do my job well, there could be money left on the table that should rightfully be distributed to municipal government for vital public services such as law enforcement, education, transportation, and parks.  

My goal is to build an organization to support that objective by ensuring we are as efficient as possible and that we get as close as possible to valuing 100 percent of assessable property in the county, and by developing technologies and policies that would maximize our efficiency and productivity to ensure policymakers—the Board of Supervisors, school boards, city councils—have the resources they need to do their jobs.

How do you go about doing your job?

The most important of my strategic goals is upgrading our 1970s-era technology. For example, we have digitized all the files for the 2.5 million properties we assess annually. When I was elected, all these files—over 100 million documents—were still in paper form. Now, any employee can access them from any computer station. Constituents can get answers to their questions on their first call, where in the past, it may have taken hours or days.

We have migrated all the data from our disparate databases into a uniform, intuitive Assessor’s Portal (portal.assessor.lacounty.gov) that offers historic records, maps, and photos. It’s a much easier system to navigate for both employees and the public. We have shared access to our internal website with the Auditor-Controller, the Treasurer and Tax Collector, and other county departments that may need it. Our outward-facing website is also much more user-friendly and substantive.

One component of this effort is an open-data initiative to ensure that all our public information is readily accessible. We actually did that at a cost to the department; we used to sell much of the data that we now make available online for free. Part of my motivation for doing this was the companies out there that generate income from our data, like Zillow, Case-Shiller, and Redfin. They buy this data, add to it, and market it at a cost. It’s my hope that, over time, we will be able to make much of our raw data available to as a free tool for the public. It is, after all, public data.

How is this data used, and what are your hopes for how it will be used? 

It could be as simple as someone wanting to see the assessment history of their property, whether taxes are being paid, or how assessments are distributed between land and improvements. It might be something that real estate professionals will want to use to look for comparables when their clients are interested in investing. Also, a municipality may want to better understand land-use decisions in certain neighborhoods.  

How do companies like Zillow and Redfin employ your data? Is everything that a consumer would need to know not on your website?

Our website has a lot of valuable information, but I don’t believe it has everything that every consumer might want. The goal of companies like Zillow is to provide an estimate of the cost of a property in terms of selling and buying. Our website does not provide that type of end-product information, but it’s fair to say that our information is the bench-data from which these companies calculate added-value and produce final figures. My goal is to ensure that this basic data is available in an easy-to-access format so that the public does not necessarily have to pay to access it. 

Many jurisdictions have made extraordinarily weak investments in processing systems or have proven incapable of doing so in a cost-efficient way. Talk about what you have accomplished in the Assessor’s Office.

Let me take you back a few years to when my predecessor had his troubles. The Board of Supervisors appointed an interim administrator to manage this department, bringing in a veteran manager for approximately 18 months. Management experts say that you should always take advantage of a crisis, and that is what we did. We secured a commitment from the CEO and county supervisors to invest in turning around our technological infrastructure, and when I was elected, we began developing that initiative. 

We started by spending a year studying the technologies of the entire state and other companies that provide property assessment systems in order to see what was out there in terms of tools and project management. But because California does property taxes differently than every other state, a lot of the available tools are not geared to our 58 counties. Nothing fit our needs. We concluded that we needed to build a system from the ground up. 

Now, I am not a tech guy. Upon my election, I told my staff that if this was going to be our most important initiative, we needed to work with firms to leverage their technical expertise and implement an agile development approach. We needed a built-in learning process that would allow us to adjust the project based on what we learned as we progressed, as supposed to the traditional methodology—the waterfall approach—which essentially emphasizes building the project and then seeing if it works. 

Our contract with Oracle is not a typical design-bid-build model for technology procurement. For one thing, we are introducing business functionalities incrementally as the system is being built. Meanwhile, we’re running our old system in parallel as a check against new components. You see, other agencies, like LAUSD and LADWP, have encountered problems because they did all the work before ever operationalizing the system. They turned on their new system and only then realized that it didn’t work. But when our new program is finished in 2020, we’re not going to be switching to a new system; we’ll simply turn the old system off. 

We’re building the program in two-week increments. It’s like the 1980s Japanese automobile assembly line model, where any person working on the line ha the power to shut down that line to ensure that the cars being produced actually worked in the end. It’s very democratic, and it makes everyone involved feel like they are building something together. 

It’s also important to note that Oracle has 30-40 employees embedded within the Assessor’s Office. We allocated 30 employees, who are end-users, to be part of the development team in order to ensure that what Oracle develops actually functions in the way that our employees use it.

What makes California’s and Los Angeles’s process for property assessment unique? 

Most states reassess property on an annual or cyclical basis. In California, we have event-based reassessment triggered by new construction, sales, or other changes in ownership. Most off-the-shelf systems are geared toward the way other states operate.

What makes LA County’s system different from, say, Orange County is that our system is more of complete project. Orange County has been developing its system over the past 10 years, so it has had more gradual upgrades. We would not be able to maintain operations at that speed, because the OC Assessor’s Office is about a quarter of the size of our department, and it uses an in-house system. That being said, looking at their system was informative for our decision-making. 

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What is different about Los Angeles County from the perspective of your private partner, Oracle? 

Our approach is different than what Oracle is accustomed to. Oracle is a master at the design-build model, and they had to change their processes to match our model of iterative upgrades.

I think they would tell you that the benefit of our model is that you can test the functionality and get feedback immediately from end-users. 

What percentage of the project has been completed to date? 

We are just beginning the third phase of a five-phase project. This is the most challenging part. By the time we are in Phase IV, we’ll be taking over the entire system. 

As part of our unique deal with Oracle, we own the code. This is fairly unusual; normally, the contractor wants to own the code in order to guarantee a lifetime business relationship around maintenance. But it was important to us to do away with the need to rely on a vendor indefinitely.

On top of that, we have an agreement to sell the product to other California counties. Oracle will be a participant in those transactions, but it is our system and they are our dealings to manage. As a result, we’ll be able to recoup some of our investment.

Every assessor in California has been struggling with the antiquated systems we have now. They all struggle to find compatible alternatives. By the time we’re done, there’s a good chance that our system will become the new state standard for assessment technology in California. That is quite a legacy for my office.

What benefits are already evident to taxpayers today, even before the project is completed? 

First, our external website has been significantly upgraded. There’s an enormous amount of data there, and it is easily accessible. It is also user-friendly and has an accurate search function. You can access data that you might not have been able to before, such as satellite photos and maps, assessment history going back well over a decade, and other vital property characteristics. That information used to be housed in a half-dozen separate databases. 

Second, if someone were to call any of my offices today looking for information on a property in, say, Glendora, we could access files for them almost instantaneously. Not long ago, an employee would have had to ask the regional liaison, manually search records, and piece together the information over hours or even days before addressing the constituent’s concern.

Now, all the information is available on the desktop of every employee in the office. We search for a property file and pull together all the necessary information in one place. Constituents can get questions answered quickly and thoroughly. 

Forty years ago, California passed Prop 13, which limited reassessments (see Fulton, back page). Today, Assemblymember Laura Friedman is carrying AB 2663 to exclude another event from triggering a reassessment (see Friedman, p. 1). What is the potential significance of this bill on the rolls and the record-keeping process? 

This is a bill that I, along with San Francisco Assessor Carmen Chu, brought to Assemblymember Friedman to carry for us, and we are grateful to her for agreeing to do so and for seeing it through the end. It is a fix to what we believe is an inequitable oversight that has occurred over the past 15 or so years.

As we transitioned from domestic partnerships to marriage equality in this state, same-sex couples who had registered as domestic partners—with the expectation of being able to transfer property to their spouses—found themselves in uncharted territory. The state required that couples be legally married in order to transfer property without reassessment.

Californians who had made a good-faith effort to denote their relationships through a municipal domestic partnership registration soon discovered, sometimes by putting property into a trust, that their property had been reassessed. AB 2663 is essentially an amnesty for those who were in a legal relationship to have transfers occur without reassessment. It will not have much of a fiscal impact on most jurisdictions, but it will right a social injustice and an inequity. 

In closing, comment on how you are balancing openness and transparency with ensuring security from cyberattacks. 

Security is one of the fundamental components of the new technology system. It starts with the database and the packaging of data. Data is encrypted within our database, so even if a hacker were able to get through the county firewall and then our system firewall, they would just find a bunch of scrambled data. 

Additionally, everything in the system is managed through identity management software. Security is tight all the way from the database through the application. I am confident in saying that we are doing everything we can to reduce risks from cybersecurity threats. 

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.