In The News › EDITORIAL: Assessment woes get worse

Feb 2, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

EDITORIAL: Assessment woes get worse

EDITORIAL: Assessment woes get worse
Thursday, February 02, 2006

St. Charles Avenue is lined with elegant homes, and even after Hurricane Katrina struck the homes on the lake side of the avenue are no less stately than those on the river side. The storm did not cause appreciably more damage on one side than on the other.

So it was for no good reason that 6th District Assessor Albert Coman set St. Charles as a dividing line within his Uptown fiefdom. Mr. Coman cut assessments of most homes on the river side of the avenue by an arbitrary 15 percent, according to a study by the Bureau of Governmental Research. The watchdog group also reports that unflooded homeowners on the lake side of the avenue received assessment cuts of 50 percent.

Never mind that, according to one expert, unflooded Uptown homes are actually selling at a 10 percent premium over pre-Katrina values. And never mind that in the neighboring 4th District, valuations for unflooded homes on, for example, Carondelet Street did not decline at all.

Every serious inquiry into assessments in New Orleans has shown that similar homes in the same neighborhood often bear wildly different values, and that the division of the city among seven elected assessors only exacerbates the problem.

Mr. Coman is misusing his discretion, and he isn’t the only one. In the 7th District, Assessor Henry Heaton cut most unflooded homeowners’ assessments by 25 percent. And in the Bywater and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods, 3rd District Assessor Erroll Williams cut the valuations of unflooded homes by 15 percent. By contrast, BGR maintains that assessors did not reduce assessments in unflooded areas of the other four districts.

The city’s seven elected assessors have more leeway than ever before. The real estate market is in unprecedented flux. The future of some severely flooded neighborhoods is anyone’s guess. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners can legitimately say that water or wind damage caused the value of their homes to plunge.

Ideally, New Orleans’ seven assessors would use their discretion for the betterment of the city. In the past, though, the city’s assessors have based property valuations on political considerations, and Katrina unfortunately has not led to an outbreak of good government. Mr. Coman only gained his office when his mother, longtime 6th District Assessor Janyce Degan, retired from it in May. It is hardly surprising that a new assessor with little name recognition has been the most aggressive about cutting assessments.

But arbitrary assessment cuts by Mr. Coman and other assessors threaten the city’s financial solvency. By law, the city has to collect enough in property taxes to pay off outstanding debts. If the tax base shrinks, tax rates will have to go up.

Each assessor who arbitrarily cuts assessments in one district is imposing a de facto tax increase on the other six districts. And that’s what Mr. Coman, Mr. Heaton and Mr. Williams are doing.

This isn’t just unfair to accurately assessed homeowners. If they get out of hand, higher property tax rates will strangle the city’s recovery.

BGR went so far as to urge taxing bodies to band together and sue the city’s assessors. But the city shouldn’t have to go to court to get property assessed in a fair, consistent manner. The Tax Commission has the power to reject assessors’ rolls. The Legislature could begin the process of consolidating the seven assessors’ offices into one professional agency — a cost-saving reform that’s desperately needed in a city that has lost two-thirds of its population.

Assessors may not care whether property taxes are assessed fairly across the city. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans ought to be cleaning up its act. The storm shouldn’t be an excuse for renegade assessors to make a bad problem worse.

Feb 2, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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