In The News › Assessor-elect considers retaining Mauberret, Mire

Feb 26, 2010

Source: CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

Assessor-elect considers retaining Mauberret, Mire

Williams made campaign pledge not to hire assessors

Friday, February 26, 2010
By Richard A. Webster, Staff Writer
CityBusiness

Newly elected citywide assessor Erroll Williams raised eyebrows at a recent Bureau of Governmental Research meeting when he launched into an unprompted defense of 2nd District Assessor Claude Mauberret’s appraisal of the W Hotel in the French Quarter.

The Chartres Street hotel has been a source of controversy throughout the election, indicative of a long-broken system and the need for change, according to proponents of the consolidation of the assessor offices.

The property sold for $21.3 million in 2006, yet it is currently appraised at $3.76 million. At the current property tax rate of 130 mills, that represents an estimated loss of $342,562 in taxes per year.

Williams defended Mauberret’s assessment, saying that the sales price was the result of an inter-company transaction and did not reflect its real value. The discrepancy between the appraisal and price tag was not the result of corruption or incompetence, Williams insisted.

His comments did not sit well with some and reinforced what they already suspected — that Williams plans to hire the controversial Mauberret as part of his new team, making the city’s first unified assessor a little less unified and suspect on promises of reform.

In a Feb. 18 interview with WWL-TV, Williams, who did not return calls for comment, said he has had discussions with Mauberret in addition to 1st District Assessor Darren Mire about joining his office.

If they agreed, it would mean three of the previous seven assessors would have significant roles in the single-assessor office, creating a virtual end-run around calls for consolidation.

“Why would you expect that people who engaged in the problem and helped create the current problem would be the right choice for the new office?” said Jay Lapeyre, CEO of Laitram Corp. and past chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans.

“Williams needs to define a hiring criteria based on how to run the best department and generate fair and efficient tax assessments. That should be the standard, and it shouldn’t include many of the people from the old system.”

Williams is considering Mauberret despite agreeing to portions of the assessor’s platform from Forward New Orleans, a coalition of more than 30 business and community groups. The pledge included the following provision: “(You will) not be part of any agreement or campaign promise, and not otherwise indicate you will hire current elected assessors or preserve existing practices or relationships not consistent with efficient, uniform and fair assessments.”

Mauberret is a controversial figure, having been accused of under-assessing dozens of properties in the French Quarter that has cost the city millions in taxes annually. He dropped out of the assessor’s race after making it to a runoff with Williams, leading many to wonder whether the pair engaged in a quid pro quo agreement — if Mauberret conceded, Williams would give him a post in the new office.

“We shouldn’t be surprised. This is what politicians do. They make deals,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. “Was there a behind-the-scenes handshake? More than likely there was, but this is how politics operate. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”

Mauberret’s actions in the final days of the campaign raise further questions about whether there was an agreement in place even before the runoff, Chervenak said.

Just before the election, candidate Janis Lemle accused Mauberret’s campaign of distributing a mailer falsely connecting her to convicted Congressman William Jefferson. Mauberret denied being connected to the political action committee, Citizens for Fair Assessments, that sponsored the flier but used some of the same information in a mailer his campaign later sent.

Chervenak wonders if the effort was designed more to help Williams win as opposed to Mauberret.

“Mauberret and Lemle were competing for the same voters, so the mailers would have made it difficult for him to defeat Williams in the runoff. He would have had to get the support all of Lemle’s supporters after he just attacked her,” Chevrenak said. “What’s really interesting is that Mauberret was attacking Lemle in the final days even though Williams was in the lead. That was kind of odd.”

Sixth District Assessor Nancy Marshall, a Lemle supporter and staunch Mauberret opponent, said the mailer alone should disqualify Mauberret from being part of the new assessor’s office.

“You know what I think about Mauberret’s assessments,” Marshall said. “I don’t think they’re accurate or fair and unduly burden the rest of the city. It’s Mr. Williams’ discretion to hire anyone he wants, but this would be an indication he’s not interested in having fair and accurate assessments. I think Mauberret is part of the problem and unfit for any office.”

In its extensive report on the assessor’s office, “In all Fairness: Building a Model Assessment System in New Orleans,” the Bureau of Governmental Research stated that “rehiring the existing assessors would tend to work against a change in the organization culture.”

BGR President Janet Howard said reform efforts could be threatened if Williams moves in that direction.

“The office needs a revolution, and you can’t get there by hiring leaders of the status quo,” Howard said. “All the reform talk in the world won’t be worth anything if you put the old leadership back in key positions.”

Despite concerns about a potential Mauberret hire and suspected political deals, there is a sense of guarded optimism surrounding Williams.

“My sense of Erroll is that he is basically an honest guy,” Latter & Blum Inc./Realtors President Arthur Sterbcow said. “When you’re 60, if you’ve got a rotten reputation it will be well-known before the time you turn 60. Erroll doesn’t have that reputation, and I don’t see him at this stage of his life becoming some evil Darth Vader. I’m hopeful and optimistic he will get in there and fix things.”

Lepeyre encourages Williams to think of his legacy as the first single assessor in the history of New Orleans before he makes any rash decisions like hiring Mauberret.

“The best path for this guy is to come out of the blocks defining the standards as doing the right thing and being about reform. If he does that, he will get a lot of support. And the people opposed to it will find that there is no place to hide,” Lepeyre said.

“If he isn’t committed to changing things and allows people to run the show like they have in the past, he will face an awful lot of public pressure and scrutiny because eyes will be on him.”

Feb 26, 2010

Source: CityBusiness

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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