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An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the December 2016 issue of the Diocesan Post (p8).  

Until recently, the Diocese of British Columbia and its parishes restricted overall knowledge about their properties, buildings and the value of these assets. Existing asset records resided in filing cabinets at parishes and the synod office. There was no way to review assets in terms of their appraised or assessment values. However, assets need to work for the church to make it stronger for the future and the information about assets needs to be readily available and accessible. One solution is to use technology such as a web-based digital database to provide meaningful analysis.

So, what have real estate assets and related information systems got to do with the church? Churches were often the centre of a community, and through people’s generosity, churches were built on donated land. One such community was the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, which came into being in 1887, prior to the creation of the province of British Columbia. The diocese expanded in membership and assets rapidly until the middle of the 20th century. In its growth period, it focused on community and worship without necessarily planning for its overall future sustainability. Recording its holdings was not a high priority. Due to necessity, the church has recently had to pay attention to its business practices, caused partly by the societal shift towards secularism and declining church attendance. It is clear that the church needs to take stock of its considerable physical assets by creating an accurate record, determine what affects these holdings, and then carefully and professionally plan to utilize these assets to sustain the church.

The diocese has embarked on creating a web-based database to efficiently manage its many properties and buildings. The design focuses on accommodating church land and building management needs, allowing information relationships to be made between parishes, regions and the diocese, and allowing useful reports to be generated. The diocesan asset management office, with the full support of the bishop and Diocesan Council, has driven this initiative.

Due to the confidentially of some of the information, security has been a central pillar of the design. This aspect has also been made very flexible to accommodate the many possible users—from those entering and changing data to those only allowed to view limited parish asset records. Database information can easily be accessed by any number and type of users, based on assigned security levels and required passwords. The central data set of the database are the BC Land Title records for all the diocesan owned properties. Associated to this data set are records dealing with buildings and their condition, property taxes and insurance. The data can be viewed, edited and archived, with the latter being an audit trail of “deleted” records.

The diocese turned to local software providers to create a professional database and eventually contracted Caorda to design and write the software. The diocese is the proprietary owner of the database code and has the ability to license the product to others. This secure program is hosted in Canada, is currently operational online, and accessed through the diocesan website. Once online, users can find a wealth of information available at the click of a mouse in the following records:

The Overview Tab gives detailed information for all parishes including mailing and email addresses, office contact information, rectors’ contact information, email addresses, and a parish-specific photo gallery. The gallery library is an important photographic record compiled by Toad Hollow Photography which has donated its expertise in support of the diocese. 

The Property Tab links all the other tabs and will be used by the Assessment Authority and local governments. Data in the property tab contains BC Land Title and Plan records–-details of title registration documents, special notation of important status such as heritage registry and zoning. This Tab enables the synod office and parishes (by request to the synod office) to save important documents including parish history, zoning bylaws, surveys, building condition reports and maps. The storage capacity in the database will accommodate large files.

The Assessment Tab contains information on BC Assessment Authority values for each property, which is used by local governments to calculate property taxes. The data is stored by year. These important records provide detailed information on property classifications as well as land and building values. This information is critical to the diocese in determining whether a local government is going to apply property taxes due to a change in property classification. If a change is discovered, such as the classification changes from non-profit to residential, the diocese is able to appeal the change. Although a church and the property it directly sits on are statutorily exempt from taxation, all other church property is only permissively exempt, which leaves the discretion of taxing to the whims of local government. The assessment tab record is updated annually as the new assessments are received from the BC Assessment Authority. This provides the user easy access to information without having to manually search for it.

The Appraisal Tab is primarily a set of records about the appraised values of structures for insurance purposes, which are mandatory when determining the insurance replacement value of a building and tend to have a long valid timeframe. The second set of records are concerned with real estate values and therefore have limited value over time. Very few church properties have undergone a real estate appraisal as this is usually only undertaken if the property has a special need. 

The Insurance Tab contains detailed information on insurance coverage, premiums, values of buildings and contents, liability coverage information, important building information, and insurance premium costs. This is a critical part of managing church structures and, up until a few years ago, was not scrutinized. The data, which is arranged by year, has been uploaded and only needs updating when new values are made available. 

The Cemetery Tab is a “work in progress” and will eventually contain historical records of graves, columbarium’s and niches. Records of all cemetery plans and financial information on trusts may be contained in this tab. The diocese has a responsibly under the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act of BC to maintain such records.

The Reports section is where those with administration clearance can generate a number of pre-defined reports which can be set to a specific parish, multiple parishes, a region or the entire diocese. Reports can be generated about data aspects found in each of the Tabs, such as property information including title information, year to year comparison of insurance costs, and year to year assessment.

The Future

The diocesan website is currently being redesigned to improve communication with the general public, parishes and the synod office. Part of the anticipated redesign incorporates a contact list that will enable users of the database to log in using a secure password and easily access contact information. The database has been designed to accommodate new tabs for other, yet unspecified, records. For example, parish annual reports, parish balance sheets and financial statements. This may require parish offices to log on and input data. In order to be effective, this kind of change would require that the database format be standardized and at the same time be very easy to use with thresholds/criteria set up to guide the user. Now that the database is up and running, it is recognized that additional data is required to provide functionality for parishes. Items such as a new tab for parish annual review are being considered.

Stay tuned for updates about the diocesan database. More information will follow in subsequent Diocesan Post articles. If you wish to know more, you can contact Peter Daniel or Zena McCreary at the synod office.