As the CEO of a surveying and engineering firm that specializes in advanced technologies (among many other services), Bill Fenstermaker Jr. knows firsthand the importance of the digital age and its ability to enhance services in both the private and public sectors. And when C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates designed its own mapping software to "visualize" the wide array of tasks at hand on any given day, Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux took notice. Fenstermaker, one of ABiz's Top 50 privately held companies, modified its in-house software program to create a mapping system that's wholly unique to the local assessor's website. As the company develops the software further, its designers are seeing almost endless mapping capabilities for businesses and government agencies alike. ABiz sat down with Bill Fenstermaker recently to discuss the mapping system and how it's helping with property assessment in Lafayette Parish.
Tell us a little about the software the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor's Office is now using. Is this program something used by other companies as well? Was this developed specifically for the assessor?
It's a map engine we designed for Fenstermaker, and the assessor is using our map engine. With our engine, let's say I have a work order over in Texas. So I go to our map engine, and it zooms in and shows us all the jobs that came in today, anywhere in the country, or all the jobs from last week, or the week before that, and so on. We use it to visualize information. Conrad was searching for a way to look at [land parcels], and most map services take time to generate the map. Ours is really pretty quick. Speed today is everything. Conrad discovered our software and asked if we could do this for him. He didn't have the capability before to quickly do this. You had to zoom in and try to decide where you're going to look, and how do you do that with over 100,000 parcels in Lafayette? Until you have a system that can do it very quickly, it's very difficult to assess those properties. We use it to visualize our work, but it has tremendous capabilities for the assessor's office, or for cities and other government agencies.
Has this map service been used for any other local government projects?
Yes. We've been hired to design the master plan for the city of Scott, so we created a map for the city. If you want to see the council districts, TIF districts, fire stations, police stations, it's all a click away. And with all the maps we create, we manage it through our website, then we can publish the map for them to access it online. Conrad paid us a fee for developing it, but it was a very small fee because it was fun for us to try it out. He and his staff helped us design it, to tell us what he wanted using our map engine. It's got many more functions on it, and it's easy to use.
Can you give an example of the unique features your company created for the assessor's site?
One really useful tool on the map is the FEMA floodway feature. The map shows you, in red, the areas in the parish that you can't build on without getting a no-rise certificate. You can look right at the floodways on the map and see the subdivisions located within them. And you can see the empty lots within the floodways, so you'll know that you probably won't get a permit to build there without a no-rise certificate from an engineer. This map gives you an indication before buying the land that it's in a floodway. FEMA has a map with all of this on it, but it doesn't have all the houses, and you can't see through it to see other features of the land. Quite frankly, FEMA's map isn't very fast.
So is it safe to say that Conrad's website is pretty far above the curve with this software?
I think he probably is. There are some nice sites out there, but when it's slow, you tend not to use it. This is very fast. Before [the new software], to look at a tract it took a lot of time. Now he can look at an entire area to check assessments and see if they're fair. Hopefully that's what he's using it for.
Have any other government agencies expressed an interest in this software?
Absolutely. We've had a lot of people kick its tires and look at it. We can set it up for the program to look for and find specific things on the map. The next evolutions of this are very nice. We're able to tweak our models so that other cities and other assessors can use this. We can do all kinds of things. Because we work on projects in different parts of the country, we're marketing this in other states.