Wayne Co. asks for $235K in records request on payment plans
The Detroit News started reporting this story with a simple question: Foreclosures are down dramatically in Detroit, but how are residents doing on the low-interest repayment plans designed nearly five years ago to help avoid thousands more from losing their homes?
To answer that question, reporters pieced together more than half a dozen sources of data relating to roughly 12,000 properties, some of the first to enroll in the plans.
Acquiring the data was a months-long task. This summer, Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree's office billed The News $235,000 for aggregated countywide debt data that was already publicly accessible and free for individual properties. Instead of paying the fee, the paper partnered with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting to "scrape" the data needed for this analysis from a county website.
The payment plans, called Interest Reduction Stipulated Payment Agreements (IRSPA), were established in state law in early 2015 with the goal of heading off record foreclosures in Wayne County. City, county and state officials thought lowering interest rates and extending the repayment over five years would help.
But little public data is available on how people have performed on the plans. Sabree acknowledged his office has yet to do a "comprehensive analysis" of homeowners' progress. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans called for a review of payment plans in his State of the County speech this spring.
The News analysis began with a list of all the properties on IRSPA payment plans as of August 2016, acquired through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Only homeowners are allowed on IRSPAs. The idea was to track these properties three years later to see whether they paid off their debt, were still paying or had been foreclosed.
Initially in 2016, Sabree's office denied The News any identifying information for properties on these plans, including addresses. The News appealed that decision to Wayne County Warren Evans, whose office granted it.
Over the course of the last year, The News filed more FOIA requests for county and city data that helped track the 12,550 parcels on IRSPAs in the original August 2016 list.
The News excluded 616 properties for which inconsistencies in the data could not be reconciled, or those for which not enough data was available. Among those were properties with Neighborhood Enterprise Zone tax breaks, which effectively splits each property into two parcels. Those related parcels have been inconsistently included in the city and county data, making them difficult to track.
The News then filed a public records request in June 2019 for debt data on all county properties in the treasurer's database. That's when Sabree indicated he'd changed the way he charges fees for records requests.
For at least the last decade, the office billed The News costs for the staff labor of fulfilling the data request, based on the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. That law allows public access to government records, even allowing officials to waive fees if release is in the public interest.
Sabree's office said it was now basing bills for property requests on the state's Transcripts and Abstracts Records Act (TARA). That allows county offices to charge .25 cents per parcel per year for tax data, which added up to $235,348.75, according to the county's response.
"In our review of our procedures, we were made aware that these rates should have been applied even if the request was submitted under FOIA as mandated by TARA," Sabree wrote in an email to The News. "We have since revised our procedures to reflect this and consistently apply it to such requests."
Washtenaw County Treasurer Catherine McClary told The News that she uses TARA to charge for public requests of delinquent tax data and believes that Sabree is mandated to use the law.
The Michigan State Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that treasurers could use TARA, rather than FOIA, to charge for property tax records.
Sabree did charge The News less -- between $200 to $500 -- for several other smaller data sets the newspaper requested and used in the analysis.
The News appealed the $235,000 cost to Evans but was denied.
The debt data is available on an individual property level to the public through the county’s online payment portal. Amassing it in one place required tailor-made code that could “scrape” information from the website through thousands of individual parcel queries.
The Detroit-based property data firm Loveland Technologies had been scraping the Treasurer’s website intermittently for years as part of their work tracking tax delinquency. Loveland worked with The News to provide preliminary scraped data during the initial development of the analysis.
As part of a collaboration between the Detroit News and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Reveal staff provided an independent version of that data, scraping the debt amounts for all Detroit properties from the website in mid-September. It is that dataset that The News used for its final analysis.
Research and reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.