In The News › A major change is quietly developing in City Hall: the move to a single assessor

Mar 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

A major change is quietly developing in City Hall: the move to a single assessor

Monday, March 29, 2010
By Cindy Chang
The Times-Picayune

Judging by the office furniture, the fourth floor of New Orleans City Hall hasn’t changed much since the days of typewriters and carbon paper. The signs marking each of the seven district assessors’ offices would not be out of place in a museum of mid-20th century municipal history.

But change is coming. At midnight on Dec. 31 — and possibly sooner — Erroll Williams will take over as New Orleans’ first citywide assessor. The district offices will merge into one, and every employee, from the head honchos to the most junior clerk, will be out of work unless rehired by Williams.

Williams plans to dramatically rejigger his new dominion, making the front portion, now home to the 1st and 2nd District offices, into a reception area. After the physical makeover comes the real work — first and foremost the gargantuan task of accurately appraising every property in the city by 2012.

New Orleanians voted in 2006 to abandon the seven-assessor system, in hopes that a single assessor could fix a system long riddled with inconsistencies and allegations of favoritism. As the winner of the first election for the citywide post, Williams faces the biggest challenge in his three decades as a public official: following through on that promise of reform in a city ravaged by a monstrous hurricane less than five years ago.

The practice of paying six-figure salaries to seven assessors will be a thing of the past, along with the easy personal access the small offices afforded. The question is whether Williams, who prefers to the word “change” to “reform,” can fix a system he has been an integral part of for over 25 years.

Williams, 60, is currently the assessor for the 3rd District, which includes the entire eastern half of New Orleans. He is used to covering a lot of ground. Still, in short order, he must double his territory and get a handle on unfamiliar, idiosyncratic neighborhoods, all the while working with a new staff and a new computer system.

Once he takes office, he has less than a year to finish the bulk of the 2012 quadrennial reassessment. If he does the job correctly, the city’s property tax burden will be fairly distributed for the first time, but he will face the wrath of some property owners who have been used to a certain amount of leniency from their old assessors.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for them,” Williams said of his constituents. “What they will find is that they should be at the same level as their neighbor. There are no sacred cows.”

File cabinets overflowing

In his City Hall office in early March, a few weeks after 2nd District Assessor Claude Mauberret conceded the runoff to him, Williams pointed to the stacks of paper obscuring his desk and cabinet tops.

He flipped through a thick sheaf of photographs submitted by a homeowner who thought an assessment should be lowered because the inside of the house was not renovated.

“If I have one goal in mind, it’s to get rid of this paper. It’s an embarrassment,” Williams said. “But you also have to make sure you don’t lose anything. You have to make sure requests do get answered, as well as the other focus: We have the revaluation coming up.”

The other district offices have their own overflowing file cabinets, some with century-old records still residing on index cards. Williams plans to hire an outside firm to figure out the best way of getting the documents organized into a searchable database so the old-fashioned paper can be consigned to the garbage heap.

Williams’ new job could start sooner than Jan. 1 — possibly quite a bit sooner. Bills introduced by state legislators would move the date up to either May 3 or July 1. In the meantime, Williams said, he is trying to get started with the reassessments, even while his official purview does not extend beyond the 3rd District.

“I don’t think I could do 100 percent in that nine-month period,” Williams said. “But I can’t dictate to the other assessors — I can only suggest at this point.”

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who sponsored one of the early-consolidation bills, said he has been working closely with Williams to arrive at an ideal start date. While Williams needs time to get organized and hire his staff, waiting until next year would eat up valuable time and force taxpayers to continue footing the bill for seven separate offices, Morrell said.

“I don’t think it should be dragged out any longer than necessary,” Morrell said. “It’s a waste of money and resources.”

Part science, part art

With his large, square glasses and rapid-fire technospeak, Williams acts the part of someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with numbers — first as a financial auditor, then as the city’s finance director and chief administrative officer under Mayor Dutch Morial. He was elected 3rd District assessor in 1985 and has held the job ever since.

In the February primary for citywide assessor, Williams ran against longtime colleague Mauberret, as well as reform candidate Janis Lemle and dark horse Andrew Gressett. Williams finished first and was preparing to face Mauberret in the general election when Mauberret conceded, saying he feared the contest would have been marred by racial divisiveness. Mauberret is white; Williams is black and has been a longtime leader of the political group LIFE founded by Dutch Morial.

Back in 2006, when the single-assessor referendum was being debated, Williams and the other district assessors came down in favor of the status quo, arguing the small offices lent a necessary personal touch. Now, Williams will lead the citywide office he once thought was a bad idea.

In addition to consolidating seven separate operations, Williams is trying to finish in a hurry a task that has long been left undone. In 2003, the district assessors spent $1.2 million on a new computer system that promised to automate much of the laborious task of assigning an accurate dollar value to every property in the city.

But in order to crunch data, the “computer assisted mass appraisal,” or CAMA, system needs data to work with. Nine million dollars later, an outside contractor has combed every block in the city to gather data such as square footage and style of construction. Another obstacle — obtaining satellite maps and permit information from a recalcitrant Nagin administration — has also been overcome in recent months.

The new computer system still awaits the inputting of all the hard-won data, but Williams expects to begin using it in short order as he begins his quadrennial reassessments.

CAMA is accepted among professionals as the most accurate way to arrive at property values for a large geographic area. Mass appraisal is mostly science but partly art, especially in New Orleans, with its patchwork neighborhoods of a mansion here, a humble shotgun there. Katrina has added further wrinkles, as some properties still lie in shambles while others are in the midst of renovations or brand-spanking new.

If Williams is able to incorporate modern appraisal methods citywide, he will almost certainly achieve a vast improvement over the seven assessors, some who appear to use problematic methods such as “sales-chasing” — raising the values of recently sold homes while leaving others untouched.

“A whole lot of pieces of the puzzle need to be put in place beforehand,” Williams said. “A database that gives consistency. A computer system to analyze the data. The other part is a professionally trained staff to look at properties and recognize that sometimes the numbers and the square footage don’t necessarily reflect the condition of the property at a given time.”

More appraisers

The budget for the single assessor’s office is expected to remain at about $6.7 million a year, the same as that of the seven district offices put together, Williams said. With more than $1 million annually going to pay off debts, the operating budget will be about $5.4 million.

Eliminating some duplications from the seven separate offices — notably each district assessor’s $100,000-plus salary — will create cost savings that can be applied elsewhere. Williams hopes to increase personnel levels from the 50 or so now working in the district offices to between 55 to 60. The consolidated office will need fewer customer-service employees and more appraisers, Williams said.
Including the district assessors, about 11 certified assessors now work for the city. Williams believes the number for the new office should be 16 to 20.

If Williams hires any of the current district assessors, there is sure to be an outcry from the reform-minded wing that supported Lemle’s candidacy, and from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research, which has closely tracked the assessors’ performances. Williams cannot make a fresh start if he retains the most visible faces of the old system, said BGR’s president and CEO Janet Howard.

“He’s got to hire competent people, people who can contribute to a change in the way the office is run,” Howard said. “He has to be careful that he’s not going to recreate a dysfunctional office by putting people in who contributed to that dysfunction in the past. Cultural change is needed.”

Of the current assessors, only Mauberret and 1st District Assessor Darren Mire have expressed interest in working for him, and they will be given a fair shake, just like any other applicants, Williams said. Mire has extensive experience appraising commercial properties and could be a candidate to lead the commercial division, he said, while Mauberret has experience in both commercial and residential appraisals.

Both Mauberret and Mire said in interviews that they have not yet decided whether to seek work in the new office.

“They will be evaluated on their qualifications. They have qualifications that fit to my criteria,” Williams said. “There’s only going to be one policy, and that is where they fit best into the organizational structure.”

According to 6th District Assessor Nancy Marshall, who plans to return to her law practice full-time after her term ends, so many properties are underassessed that if Williams does a decent job, the city will be able to reduce its millage rate. Many people, with the exception of those currently being lowballed, will see a significant drop in their property tax bills, Marshall believes.

New Orleans already experienced a step in that direction in the last quadrennial assessment, when assessors, under pressure from the state Tax Commission, grudgingly raised thousands of appraisals, and the millage rate fell by a third.

“I think Mr. Williams is hard-working and intelligent. It’s a very difficult job, and I wish him the best of luck,” said Marshall, who supported Lemle in the election. “If the job is done right, there should be a dramatic drop in millage and many people’s taxes. Some people will have to pay more, but a lot of people, especially the ones in my district, will pay a lot less.”

Mar 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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