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Los Angeles County Brings Tech Innovation To Property Tax Complexity

Innovation takes many forms, and would certainly include a local government leaping from ancient green screen software to cloud-based applications to manage data at the heart of its tax records. Now consider that the project is for Los Angeles County, the U.S.’s largest county with more than 10 million people, and it gets even more interesting.

L.A.'s Echo Park Lake with downtown in the background.

About 25% of California’s population lives in Los Angeles County, which spans more than 4,000 square miles.

The Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor decided to build its own cloud-based “Assessor as a Service” capability because, after much research, it felt off-the-shelf software wouldn’t accommodate California’s complicated Proposition 13 tax legislation well. And now L.A. County plans to make the software available via subscription to agencies throughout California and the U.S.

“Prop 13 actually limits the options available for modernization,” says Scott Thornberry, director of operations at the Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor. “We found several large counties had undertaken initiatives and failed because third-party vendors had built products that worked well in other states and counties around the world, but Prop 13 is radically different so the ability for any California county to buy off-the-shelf software is very limited.”

To solve the problem itself, the L.A. County Assessor’s Office initiated its Assessment Modernization Project, which involved moving more than 100 software and system portfolio assets to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. As part of that project, the Assessor’s Office modernized its Assessor Portal, which provides search access to records, maps, and photos. The public can access the portal, which is also used by 12 departments involved in property taxation, from the treasurer and tax collector to the public health department. For example, a property owner or potential buyer can view a property’s assessment history and see how the assessments are distributed between land and improvements. An internal department could use it to determine whether property taxes have been paid.

The Impetus

About 25% of California’s population lives in L.A. County, which spans more than 4,000 square miles and includes 2.5 million property parcels. The L.A. County assessor’s office is responsible for assessing the value of those properties for taxation purposes, which means about 500,000 property appraisals a year. It’s a lot of work. Handling that volume had become unwieldy using paper documents and that 40-year-old green-screen technology.

Further complicating workflows is the Proposition 13 legislation that took effect in 1978. Among other things, Prop 13 applies different tax rules to those who have owned property since the 1975 baseline year and those who purchased property after the baseline year.  That means two properties with the same market value can have much different tax amounts. Thornberry’s team spent two years analyzing commercially available applications for tax assessment, and decided that none met the county’s requirements.

So about four years ago the LA County assessor’s office decided to modernize its own applications, and move them to a public cloud. That meant it needed a cloud infrastructure that could support software development, testing, and large-scale deployment. It picked Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, including Oracle Database, as “the most robust platform we could use,” Assistant Assessor Steven Hernandez says. “In addition to being the most responsive to our requests, the fact we’d have one company to work with was a significant draw.”

A Five-Phase Modernization

For the past four years, the assessor’s office has been working with Oracle on its Assessor Modernization Project.

Phase one involved choosing the architecture and which applications to move from a local data center to Oracle Cloud. In phase two, the initial applications—as well as software development and test environments—moved to the cloud. Phase three is in the final stages of migrating additional elements to the cloud and ensuring software performance of everything in production. Phase four involves disaster recovery and the final migration of applications and software development.  Phase five more fully integrates the modern cloud technology supporting the Assessor applications, letting the office fully retire legacy applications and systems.

As part of the effort, the assessor’s office scanned approximately 50 million pages of documentation.

“When we got into this, we knew there were three prongs to the AMP initiative: the digitization of records, getting off the green screen, and data quality,” Thornberry says. Data quality is essential since accurate assessments require accurate historical data.

Moving to the cloud also helped facilitate agile software development practices that have contributed to the success of AMP.

“Agile methodology is necessary in our department because we’re able to design and develop software in smaller, more manageable pieces and then test it immediately,” Thornberry says. “It gives us the reassurance that what we’re building is going to work at the end as opposed to building it and crossing your fingers and hoping it all works.”

Sharing the Benefits

As the largest county in California and the nation, L.A. has significantly greater human and financial resources than most other counties. So the L.A. assessor’s office reasoned that sharing its technology via a cloud app could let its investments have a statewide impact.

“We want to make it easy so all they have to do is turn it on and avail themselves of the process and workflow,” Hernandez says. “Originally, we thought our ability to share our product would be limited to the other California counties, but we’ve come in contact with other assessing agencies throughout the U.S., and they have similar needs.”

Other counties and agencies that perform assessments will soon be able to tap an Assessor Portal equivalent called “Assessor as a Service,” paying a subscription to support maintenance, plus Oracle Cloud Infrastructure resources they use.

For L.A. County, the pay-for-use model for its cloud infrastructure means cost savings over an owned data center approach. “It’s a lot cheaper for us because we’re paying for what we use rather than making a major purchase,” Hernandez says

The cloud also makes it easier to bring in new capabilities. For example, the L.A. County assessor’s office plans to test Oracle Cloud digital assistants to help the public get fast answers to property tax questions. In addition, such chatbots could help Assessor Portal users get instant help while using the application versus waiting for a help desk to respond. The chatbot functionality is attractive because it would increase departmental responsiveness while lowering the cost of answering common questions. “California property tax is a complex topic, so it’s hard to explain,” Thornberry says. “We’re constantly looking at new technologies that can help improve process efficiencies.”