How did you get access to 200,000 pages of tax documents, and what were the challenges of sifting through them for the most significant stories? At minimum, this was no doubt very dry reading…
The 200,000-plus page document was something that the city sends to the county treasurer every year after March 1. It’s a listing of all the parcels in the city, with a breakdown of their tax bill and whether the owner paid or not. The county collects on the city’s behalf after owners don’t pay. We filed a FOIA request in mid-July with the city for the document. This is the first time we’d seen it at The News.
We’ve talked in the newsroom for a few years about wanting to map out taxpayers and delinquents citywide. The city has had a record number of tax foreclosures since 2008. An estimated 66,000 properties are government-owned today, around 17 percent of the city’s parcels. We wanted to show how a shrinking group of neighborhoods is supporting the city through property taxes.
The file was in Adobe Acrobat, which made it challenging to use. We had to work through several steps to get the data usable by Excel and Access. Then we were able to get updated numbers from the treasurer on owners who paid 2011 taxes after the March 1 deadline. So, the 47 percent figure [of property owners who had not paid taxes] we presented was a number as of late January.
My colleague Mike Wilkinson mapped out each parcel using ArcMap, which allowed us to present a map in print and online of collection rates by neighborhood and census tract. We also used the map to internally identify areas, down to the block level, of where we wanted to interview folks. That included some examples where there was only one taxpayer on the block.
Your report came out the same week as the state financial review of the City of Detroit, which no doubt amplified the urgency of your story. But you might also have published a week before, coinciding with Mayor Dave Bing’s State of the City address, or held it until the March 1 deadline for yet more property taxes to go delinquent. Can you describe the process for choosing when to publish? I was a little surprised that the story ran on a Thursday and Friday…
Thursday and Fridays are our only home delivery days, so we often feature our best stories then. We no longer have a Sunday edition. We got updated data from the treasurer on tax payments through late January. We wanted to run the story soon so that those numbers were as current as possible. The timing worked well with the announcement of the state review team finding that Detroit is in a financial emergency.
In one of the most amazing passages, you describe how banks themselves are making a rational—if destructive—decision to walk away from properties rather than pay taxes. Why didn’t you name the banks that are doing this? And, for the record, what banks are they—national chains or local operations?
The specific mortgage servicer data wasn’t available to us through the United States General Accounting Office. They would only share overall numbers for proprietary reasons.
Did you have any lobbying role in the positions the paper took in a related editorial, “5 Ways for Detroit to fix its broken property tax system”? Are there other suggestions you’d offer as a way for Detroit to move forward?
That was a news story, not an editorial, that was reported on throughout the process. The five solutions were suggested by experts, city officials, and others who have studied the issue extensively. As with most projects, The Detroit News believes that, when tackling major public policy issues, it’s a civic duty to present possible solutions in an objective manner. We believe the article dovetailed nicely with the package of stories and made it clear that any solution will be difficult and perhaps require attention from not just Detroit, but state lawmakers as well.