Government on demand

It's amazing where you can go in Oakland County these days without even bothering to slip on your trousers.

Say you've been eyeing a particular home for sale in Oakland County. If you know the address, you can get on the Internet – hair mussed, clad in only your undies – and find out who owns the property, what they paid for it, how many bathrooms are in the house, whether it has central air ... you can even find out what school district your kids would belong to if you lived there!

You can't find out whether the people in the house are also hanging out in their underwear, but there's no telling what features could be added next.

The Parcel Attribute Query, which costs users $5 per correctly-matched address, is just one of the advanced features Oakland County offers online. Besides making life easier for people in the real estate business countywide, PAQ is part of what makes Oakland County a leader in Michigan when it comes to providing county information via the Internet.

"We've put up a ton of information on our Web site," says Robert Daddow, Oakland's assistant deputy county executive. "People can use it for an unbelievable number of things."

Almost all Oakland County departments can be reached on the Web. From there, one can not only find out about property information, but also apply for a job with the county, conduct business with its purchasing department, and much more, says Jim Taylor, distributed computing chief for the county's information technology department.

Oakland County's health department posts beach closings in the summer and various health alerts year-round. On election night, you can track results as they come in. "Our information is posted almost as we get it ... almost instantaneously," Taylor says.

The site saves time and money for both residents and county workers. Instead of driving to their local government offices and asking county employees to provide forms or pull files, users can download documents.

For example, Oakland County has Friend of the Court documents online that you can just download, fill out and send in. Of course, if you really need to visit Friend of the Court, you can punch in your address at the Web site and obtain a map and driving directions.

Oakland County's online Mortgage Application Acceleration Program (MAAP) helps banks and appraisers determine the value of a home by comparing it to the average sale price of comparable homes nearby. Daddow says more than 125 people have signed up to use the service, but Standard Federal and Comerica banks are its primary customers. Each transaction costs $50, as opposed to paying an appraiser $300 a pop.

It also saves time for the banks' customers, Daddow says. "You'd probably be able to get a mortgage in a day ... as opposed to weeks if the house had to be appraised."

In 2000, Daddow says, the county plans to go online with a digital map showing the county's 440,000 land parcels. He says the "parcel fabric" will include the features of a plat map plus "lot lines with intelligence," meaning the computer will be able to distinguish between lines indicating rights of way, easements, political boundaries and school districts. This feature will enable computers to answer queries such as: "Show me all the houses within a particular school district boundary."

Oakland County's Web offerings are complimented by Automation Alley, a site prepared by a nonprofit consortium of businesses designed to attract high-tech professionals to the county. Linked to the county's main page, it lists job openings at various companies within the county and allows prospective employees to put their resumes into a database for employers to browse.

Michigan Association of Counties spokesman J. Douglas Warren says providing online information and services saves counties and citizens time and money, which definitely seems to be the case in Oakland County.

Daddow estimates the Internet has probably saved the county and its business community millions of dollars since Oakland County first went online in 1996.

However, he says, the savings are difficult to quantify, particularly because the Web has prompted Oakland to provide more information in forms that weren't previously available – information that, in and of itself, promotes more efficiency in terms of running county government.

But costs aside, Warren says the most important thing counties can do on the Web is make local government more accessible to people.

Daddow agrees. "Right, wrong or indifferent, we are in the computer age," he says. "We have to respond to it and we are. I think our residents expect to be able to access government records."

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