Saskatchewan’s property network reassesses software

The Saskatchewan Assessment Management Agency (SAMA) recently completed, on budget and virtually on schedule, a new computer system that will give it increased flexibility to adopt market-value assessment and much improved reporting capabilities.

The

three-year Saskatchewan Property Assessment Network (SPAN) project replaced a legacy system built on proprietary Hewlett-Packard Co. technology that will soon cease to be supported with one that runs on Windows servers and uses software from Montreal-based Govern Software, Inc. It is one of the largest such projects in North America to date.

SAMA sets policies and procedures for property assessment in all 820 jurisdictions in Saskatchewan, and provides actual assessment services in more than 800 of them – only the larger cities do their own assessments. Irwin Blank, managing director of the technical standards and policies division of SAMA, said the government agency needed flexibility to move from traditional, heavily regulated assessment procedures to market-value assessment methods, which are becoming the norm in many jurisdictions.

The old system relied on proprietary software, expertise in which is in short supply today, and would have made it very difficult to move to new assessment procedures, he said. HP had also indicated it would cease supporting the system by 2006, he added, and it did not have the reporting capabilities SAMA needs today.

Blank said SAMA chose Govern in part because its software will allow SAMA staff to customize assessment procedures themselves. “That’s really a big plus for us,” he said.

More flexibility to generate reports is another benefit. “We were finding it very difficult to respond to requests for information with our existing system,” Blank said.

SAMA put out requests for proposal on the project late in 2001. It chose the Govern software and a project team that includes Omaha, Neb.-based Systems Design Inc. (SDI), which is Govern’s distributor for North America outside Quebec, and Montreal-based CGI Group Inc.

Bill Koperski, vice-president and director of operations at SDI, said the project was one of the largest implementations of Govern’s Mass Appraisal Module, since assessments in the U.S. are run at the county level with only a couple of exceptions. SDI has also implemented the software in Prince Edward Island, he noted.

CGI managed the project, a task it was well suited to undertake because of its local presence in Regina, said Tim Depko, director of consulting at CGI’s Regina office. “We’re three blocks away from (SAMA),” he explained. CGI is also hosting the system on SAMA-owned servers located at CGI’s Regina data centre.

Koperski said SDI usually tries to involve a local company as project manager on such contracts, and has worked with CGI before. “CGI has a data centre right there in Regina, so it was just kind of a natural selection to have them,” he said.

One of the challenges of the project, according to Depko, was co-ordinating participants located in Regina, Omaha and Montreal. Bi-weekly status meetings and monthly management meetings played an important role in that process.

The other big challenge was that the project had both a fixed deadline and a fixed budget. The over-all budget was $5.5 million, Blank said, of which $4.3 million was for contractor costs and the balance covered SAMA staff time and internal resources. The project came in within that budget, he said.

It also came within two weeks of its originally scheduled completion date. The original project plan called for completion on March 31, 2005, and it was actually wrapped up on April 15, Blank said.

Finishing the work on time was important because this is the year Saskatchewan carries out its quadrennial re-assessment of all properties in the province. The best time to introduce a new system is just before that re-assessment, Blank said, because new data will be entered anyway. The new system was in production in June 2004, ready to help prepare for the re-assessments. Since then, SAMA has been developing reports to be provided to municipalities.

The system stores a wide range of information about the roughly 750,000 properties SAMA assesses, and can apply an assortment of assessment procedures to that data to arrive at assessed values. Blank said there are about 250 different valuation algorithms for different types of property, and it is easy to add other algorithms as needed.

The project is based on the Mass Appraisal Module from Govern, a specialist in software for governments. SDI did “a lot of customization work for us,” Blank said, and Govern’s research staff were also called on repeatedly to adjust their software to better meet SAMA’s needs. “They batted a thousand on that,” he said.

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