In The News › Assessors play into harmful stereotypes

Jan 31, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Assessors play into harmful stereotypes

Assessors play into harmful stereotypes
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Stephanie Grace

New Orleans is broke.

Most people, even those who didn’t follow last fall’s disheartening budget adoption, have surely figured that out by now. You don’t need to be a government wonk to know, intuitively, that the city’s post-Katrina revenue is a fraction of what it was. It’s really quite obvious.

Still, maybe somebody should have explained the numbers to the seven elected assessors. Then, perhaps, half of them wouldn’t have been so eager to reduce the city’s bottom line even further.

Or perhaps they would have anyway. After all, they’re not the ones who have to figure out how to pick up trash or fight crime.

Having long ago shrugged off their one job requirement — that they consistently, systematically assess properties at their fair market value — some of the assessors, according to a new report by the Bureau of Governmental Research, are up to their old tricks: trying to protect their own jobs by currying favor with constituents, fiduciary responsibility be damned.

Erroll Williams slashed assessments on unflooded houses in intact neighborhoods in Marigny and Bywater by 15 percent, BGR said. Henry Heaton reduced home values in undamaged Riverbend by 25 percent.

And Albert Coman, who was appointed to the 6th District job by the remaining assessors after his mother Janyce Degan retired — and who will soon face voters for the first time — gave most residents on the river side of St. Charles a 15 percent cut. But Coman reserved the big prize, a 50 percent slice off the top, for the unflooded sliver on the lake side of the avenue.

Granted, the real estate market remains in flux, but can he possibly believe that intact homes in a high, dry area, let alone one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, are worth half of what they were in August? If so, I’ve got a nice mountaintop chalet in Lakeview to sell him.

Now, it’s important to note that BGR didn’t catch all of the assessors behaving badly. Betty Jefferson, Darren Mire, Tom Arnold and Claude Mauberret did not make across-the-board cuts in high and dry sections of their districts, and BGR gives them credit for doing no harm, which, given the looming elections, is a remarkable concession to good government.

Still, at least one, Mauberret, doesn’t deserve a complete pass. In a small pocket of high ground in his district, the desirable Bayou St. John neighborhood off Esplanade Avenue, Mauberret did cut assessments so deeply that some homes are now pegged at below $75,000, which happens to be the amount of Louisiana’s homestead exemption.

In other words, no taxes this year for those lucky folks.

For everyone else, though, the favor may have a high price.

The report comes at a delicate time for a state that’s seeking tens of billions in aid, and to that end, trying desperately to make a good impression. Apparently, the assessors in question, who face reelection in April and a growing move to eliminate their jobs in favor of a single, professional assessor, don’t care.

You know who does care? President Bush, federal recovery czar Donald Powell, and members of Congress — particularly the ones who spend so much of their time sneering at Louisiana’s sob story.

They’re looking for excuses not to help. They’re looking for anything to validate their stereotypes, and this tells them that, even as the state is seeking a bailout, its officials are not willing to ask their constituents to share the pain.

The ironic thing is, while there are plenty of homeowners who are struggling or who are simply glad to get a tax break, many others would have been willing to pay what they did last year.

The assessors may be too cynical to realize it, but some citizens just don’t want to see their city die, and are more than willing to pay their fair share of life support. Of course, it would hurt a lot less if they weren’t picking up the slack for residents of other districts.

But then, the system’s inequities stretch back long before the storm. And if this city and state’s political class can’t finally muster the will to fix the system now, they’ll deserve every bit of scorn that Washington can heap on them.

. . . . . . .

Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at (504) 826-3383 or at sgrace@timespicayune.com.

Jan 31, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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