Spokane County commissioners can only hope that Assessor Ralph Baker is a trendsetter in budget discussions as well as technology.
“I’m OK,” Baker told commissioners Wednesday as they began a series of budget meetings with department heads. “The budget’s good.”
“Sweet. Thanks for coming,” Commissioner Todd Mielke jokingly dismissed Baker before he could utter the word “but.”
Baker credited new aerial photography for his satisfaction with the $3.5 million spending target assigned to him by the county budget office.
No other assessor in Washington uses the state-certified aerial photos offered by Pictometry, a Rochester, N.Y., company with a patented process to give five views of each property.
Some of the high-resolution photos are expected to be added to the assessor’s website, www.spokanecounty.org/assessor, by Friday. Baker said he will post straight-down views that give only a two-dimensional view.
Oblique-angle, low-altitude photos that allow building heights to be measured will be added as soon as technical problems are resolved, Baker said.
Meanwhile, Baker said, he plans a $3,500 test of software that automatically finds new construction, including decks and outbuildings.
The software will compare new straight-down photos with lower-quality 2004 and 2005 photos the county already had for Cheney and Medical Lake.
Whether new construction is spotted manually or by computer, Baker said the Pictometry photos may allow the county Department of Building and Planning to recover building permit revenue from scofflaws.
Commissioners agreed earlier this year to pay the six-year, $560,000 cost of the special aerial photography to offset a $347,523 budget cut this year. That cut cost Baker a half-dozen positions and reduced his appraisal staff to 22. The appraisal staff now is down to 18, which Baker said is “getting pretty near the line” but adequate.
Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer, said Baker’s tentative budget shows a 2.5 percent increase when the annual cost of the Pictometry photo contract is included. Otherwise, Farnell said, the assessor’s 2011 budget will be cut nearly 2 percent.
All except the smallest county departments have been asked to cut their spending 2 percent next year.
The proposed cuts come on the heels of this year’s $12 million, 12.5 percent cut in general fund spending.
Projections show a 1.92 percent increase in general fund revenue, from $134.1 million to $136.7 million.
However, budget officials say spending cuts are needed because, even without pay raises, health and liability insurance and other costs are expected to boost expenditures 2.7 percent.