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Firefighters, SWAT teams and rescue crews speeding to a nighttime blaze, a hostage standoff or a snowmobile accident can pull up views of every high-rise, warehouse and backwoods trail. And without leaving the office, property appraisers all across Massachusetts - the only entire state mapped so far - can now pick out every swimming pool and rooftop deck that was built without a permit.
Nashua, N.H., bought the system in 2004 with a $54,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security and is solving many more property tax disputes without resorting to field trips.
"We get people come in and say 'I don't have that shed anymore, I took it down three years ago' or 'I filled in my below-ground pool,'" said Angelo Marino, the city's geographic information systems coordinator. "We look at the image, we can verify that" - or contradict it.
"I haven't found any city department that hasn't been able to use the system and make their job a little easier," Marino said. "As with everything else, budgets are very tight and you have to do more with the same amount of people or less."
In booming Lee County in southwest Florida, where tax rolls have soared above $80 billion from $4.5 billion in 1980, far fewer people are challenging their property assessments - petitions have plummeted from an average of 2,000 a year to less than 500, said the county's chief appraiser, Kenneth Wilkinson.