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Assessor Says System Flawed

The current computer system, the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) data-collection system, was installed about five years ago.

But the system is so unwieldy that city real-estate assessors say they can't access much of the year-to-year information on city properties. And it is so complicated that it can take hours to update a single property assessment, Vinson says.

"The vendor will tell you it's a highly accurate system," Vinson says. "It's true, if you had four hours to spend on each property. We have basically three minutes to spend on each property."

Vinson, who was hired last year to clean up the mismanaged city assessment office, thinks Richmond needs a new computer system. But that could cost millions, and for budget reasons he seems unlikely to get one.

In the meantime, the city assessor's office is using a technique called trending to create blanket reassessment of entire neighborhoods. Reassessments are based on what people are willing to pay for nearby houses. Changes and improvements such as recent additions or restorations aren't taken into account.

Because of trending, parts of the city have been slapped with double-digit assessment increases, particularly in the West End. Last year there were 17,000 property-assessment increases. About 1,500 of those were appealed; in 70 percent of the appeals cases the city backed down, resulting in what the department calls "minimal adjustments."

But trending, which is criticized by many developers and real-estate specialists, depends heavily on solid computer data — data that with its current computer system the city doesn't always have.

City Council member William R. Johnson says the assessors' computer system has been inefficient for some time. One of the reasons that Vinson was hired last year, in fact, is that he was a specialist who understood the system the city now uses.

Now Vinson says the system doesn't work. He and city officials are scheduled to meet this week to discuss the problem.

"It's just a variety of different things that should be looked at," Johnson says.

— Sean Ryan and Scott Bass

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