21 August 2006

Truthful Images (2)

Also in The New York Times yesterday (20 August 2006) was a story that is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. It appeared in the Real Estate section and is entitled "Finding Tax Revenue Through Aerial Imaging" by-line to Fred Bernstein. The story discusses how local tax assessors rely on aerial photography to inventory property and to respond to owner appeals of assessments. Here is how the story begins:

"Why Some Homeowners May Not Be Smiling for These Cameras

THERE are about 300,000 row houses in Philadelphia, which means there are about 300,000 row house owners in Philadelphia who would like to see their tax assessments lowered.

Some of them get in touch with the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes. A caller may say, "Our house is in the worst condition of any on the block," said Barry Mescolotto, the board’s assistant administrator. These days, Mr. Mescolotto has a good answer: "I’ll say, ‘I’m looking at a photo of your house, and it looks to be about the same as all the others.’ "

"That usually ends the conversation," Mr. Mescolotto said.

Until recently, assessors had to accept homeowners’ claims or visit the properties themselves. But in 2003, the city hired the Pictometry International Corporation, a company in Rochester, N.Y., to provide images of every building in the city.

Once a year, Pictometry flies a Cessna 172 over Philadelphia, taking thousands of black-and-white photographs. The low-altitude shots, unlike satellite images, show buildings at about a 40-degree angle. Pictometry’s computers organize the photos so they can be searched by address. Nearly 200 employees in Mr. Mescolotto’s office have the software on their computers.

Pictometry isn’t the only company offering aerial photos to assessors, but it has won adherents in more than 200 cities and counties, according to Dante Pennacchia, Pictometry’s chief marketing officer. Its competitors include an Israeli company, Ofek International, working with Aerial Cartographics of America, based in Orlando, Fla.

Mr. Mescolotto said that the Pictometry system, which costs Philadelphia about $100,000 a year, "probably paid for itself within about two weeks."

The Times story is illustrated with a large image showing Mr. Mescolotto sporting a broad grin as well as with this smaller image of the George Eastman House in Rochester (which as a not-for-profit is off the city tax rolls).

So, the two reasons I find this interesting are: (1) that Pictometry International is headquartered in Rochester and (2) that their product illustrates my own preoccupation with the various uses of photography. You can compare an earlier post about the uses of aerial images to display and discriminate among patterns of sprawl. While that use may seem "progressive", the use discussed here may seem more like surveillance in Foucault's sense. Then again, property owners are simply seeking to evade taxes that are required for the exercise of liberty as well as for the alleviation of inequality.



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