MENOMINEE—The Michigan legislation the Menominee County Board opposed in a resolution passed at the May 24 board meeting would strengthen existing laws requiring property tax records and other property information be provided to the public at a reasonable cost.
In discussing the resolution, which Menominee County Commissioners passed without opposition, County Administrator Jason Carviou said the bill would benefit for-profit companies like Zillow at the expense of taxpayers. He said it would create a system where Zillow could get public records at no charge. But Zillow disputed this characterization of the bill.
“Zillow will compensate counties for their actual costs in providing this information as prescribed under Michigan state law,” said Will Lemke, communications manager at Zillow.
The resolution said the commissioners oppose the bill “as private corporations should not benefit financially from public records at the expense of the Michigan taxpayers.” The county will send a copy of the resolution to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, State Sen. Ed McBroom, State Rep. Beau LaFave, Rep. Julie Calley and Michigan associations of counties, county treasurers, county clerks and register of deeds.
“Not only does it create a burden on our county offices to go through and pull those records and make them available to these companies, but the taxpayers have to pay for that then,” Carviou said. “Then the taxpayers are on the hook for giving them publicly owned information.
The resolution opposed four bills—House Bills 4729, 4730, 4731 and 4732—pertaining to public records from the county treasurer, county clerk and the Register of Deeds.
House Bill 4730 is the only one that’s passed the Michigan House of Representatives and is expected to be considered by the Senate, according to Brad Ward, vice president of public policy and legal affairs at Michigan Realtors, an association with 35,000 members.
“Michigan Realtors supports the bill,” Ward said. “Because they do help the consumer, the home buying public as well as our members, we believe these are public records that should be available at reasonable fees.”
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce also supports the House Bill, while the Michigan Association of Counties and the Michigan Association of County oppose it.
Many home buyers use Zillow and other real estate websites to obtain information about a property, including property taxes when available. Zillow provides the information for free to the public on its website.
“We are merely asking that basic information—which is already in the public record—be made consistently available to the public in a digital format and in compliance with Michigan records law,” Lemke said.
In some cases, the county could see reduced revenue if the bill becomes law, County Treasurer Barb Parrett said in an interview with the EagleHerald. The county charges a records fee of 50 cents per parcel, and the bill would require the county charge 25 cents per parcel and impose a maximum fee of $1,500, Parrett said. “Hypothetically though, if Zillow requested current delinquent parcels for a file of 5,000 records under current law, the cost would be $2,500 (0.50 per parcel), and under proposed H.B. 4730, the cost would be $1,250 (0.25 per parcel, maximum $1,500),” Parrett said.
“I get that Realtors are serving residents of the township and county and what not, but they’re also for profit, so they also charge those people,” she said. “Zillow wants it so they can profit.”
For the property records the county maintains, Parrett said, “We collect the data. We house the data. We manage the data. If a for-profit business wants the data, they have to pay a fair price.”
Zillow said some Michigan counties have charged the company an excessive amount for the public information, but said Menominee County hasn’t been an issue.
Zillow intends to continue to compensate Menominee County for the public information, “and the information will continue to be displayed on our websites free of charge and in an easily accessible way for the public to use. Also, it is important to point out, Zillow does not sell the data,” Lemke said.
Parts of the existing statute would remain in the updated bill, such as the amount the county is allowed to collect for providing abstracts of property tax records and land descriptions, including taypayers’ names, at a rate of 25 cents per each year covered by the abstract. It also would allow a fee of 25 cents per 100 words for any paper or document and 25 cents for each certificate requested.
Besides the fees charged for public documents, the local government receives revenue related to property from the millage and from a transfer tax when a property is sold. According to Michigan statute, the transfer tax rate is 0.75%, or “$3.75 for each $500 or fraction of $500 of the total value of the property being transferred.”
House Bill 4730, which passed the Michigan House April 27, would amend Michigan statute 1895 PA 161, which requires county treasurers provide public records at fixed fees, by changing the word from “shall” to “must” in the following sentences:
“The maximum charge shall be $0.25 per parcel record, 20 not to exceed $1,500.00 for each request under this section, if the request is for an electronic copy of records in a qualified data file that is maintained with the county treasurer. A response to a request for an electronic copy of records in the qualified data file shall must be transmitted electronically using a format that is documented by an open standards organization and that has defined, delimited fields.”
The bill also stipulates the county treasurer must provide the following information about properties if the treasurer maintains them: the property’s taxable value, the state equalized value, the assessed value, past sale data, property classification, property address, parcel identification number, owner name and address, taxpayer name and address, principal residence status, other tax equalization data, special assessments, total millage rate, enumerated millage list, tax bill amount for winter tax bill and tax bill amount for summer tax bill.
Parrett said the county treasurer’s office doesn’t maintain all of the information covered in the bill. “County treasurers maintain data for delinquent parcels only,” she said.
Menominee County relies on BS&A Online to manage some public records, she said. “It assesses a $3 per parcel inquiry fee. The homeowner or property owner can create an account and access their own information for free,” she said.
The current statute doesn’t stipulate a county government should charge more for a public record when the requestor is a for-profit business, and the new bill doesn’t reference this concept either.
Zillow said it provides the information to assist the public. “Since Zillow launched in 2006, we have been working to set real estate information free to empower consumers and help them make smarter, more informed decisions on what is often the largest financial transaction of their lives,” the company said in a statement.
But Parrett said Zillow wants to keep costs low “to further enhance their business and profits.” County governments would continue to incur the same costs to produce the information that Zillow is seeking, she said, noting the county pays for employees, equipment, software document storage, and other expenses.
The other House Bills the Menominee County resolution opposed also included pubic records. House Bill 4729 would require the county to provide the public with requested records in the medium preferred by the person requesting the information or let requestors use their own equipment on the premises to copy the records.
House Bill 4731 would exempt from the Enhanced Access to Public Records Act requests for enhanced access to property appraisal cards and property assessment rolls prepared under the General Property Tax Act. The Enhanced Access to Public Records Act allows a Public Body to charge a reasonable fee or in some cases to waive the fee if the request is in the public interest.
House Bill 4732 would allow the Register of Deeds impose a fee for electronic records commensurate with the cost of the disc used to store the data. The fee for paper copies of Register of Deeds records would remain $1 per page.