In The News › Fox 8 Investigation prompts swift action by N.O. Assessor

Jul 31, 2011

Source: Fox 8

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

Fox 8 Investigation prompts swift action by N.O. Assessor

Sunday, July 31, 2011
By Bigad Shaban
Fox 8

The Orleans Parish Assessor is crediting a FOX 8 investigation for uncovering hundreds of thousands of local tax dollars that have been going uncollected. And there may be even more money missing the books.

In the absence of customers, Ali Basiri tends to his tiny French Quarter leather clothing store. He’s a business owner of 25 years, but these days are tough.

“Because as it is, business is not that great,” Basiri said.

To counter, he tries to keep his products in line, wishing the city would do the same with its property tax assessments to ensure businesses pay their fare share, so small businesses like Basiri’s aren’t stuck with a bigger bill.

“Why should we pay more than we should,” he said.

You need only look outside his shop to find one possible answer. Just across Decatur Street along the riverfront you’ll find a pair of parking lots—the Jax Lot rests right next to the Sugar Lot. The two share the same management company, even the same prices, yet how much they’re expected to pay in property taxes is very different.

The Sugar Lot has about 277 parking spaces, and is appraised by the assessor’s office at $4.2 million dollars. The JAX Lot is a lot bigger, with about 406 parking spaces, but it’s only appraised at $2,586.200—meaning, it’s paying hundreds of thousands of dollars less to the city.

“That shouldn’t be,” said Erroll Williams, Orleans Parish Assessor. “The practice of whatever the assessor did in the past, I’m going to fix it.”

Williams says, while his office is set to announce major assessment changes city-wide on Monday, he’s made a last-minute fix to increase the amount that the Jax Lot should pay in property taxes, based on our findings.

Just how much, Williams won’t say until he can first notify the owner of the lot.

The same company, Jackson Brewery Associates, owns both the Jax and the Sugar Lots, according to the New Orleans Assessor’s website. FOX 8 stopped by the headquarters Friday evening for comment, but a representative in the office said we had to speak with one of the company’s partners, Darryl Berger. Berger was on a flight out of New Orleans at the time.

Williams says our investigation led him to discover that parking lots all over the city may be greatly under-assessed, shortchanging the city coffers.

“Property taxes is one aspect of the city’s budget,” Williams said. “So when we don’t get the money, somebody loses in services on the other side.”

Filling potholes, clearing drains, even educating children, are all partly funded by property taxes.

“There’s a list of approximately 15 entities that receive some part of your taxes,” said Janet Howard, President/CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans.

Howard says the city, Orleans Parish School Board, and the Sewerage and Water Board are a few on the list. And New Orleans, Howard says, has a poor track record in producing fair assessments.

“We have a long history of that,” Howard told us.

Howard had expected that to change with the announcement of the new 2012 assessments, due to a $900,000 contract signed by the New Orleans Assessor’s Office two years ago to hire a consultant.

“We should be expecting assessments that are more and more accurate,” Howard said.

But Williams tells FOX 8 that those recommendations are not being factored in the 2012 assessments because he only received them last month.

“It’s one year late,” Williams said. “It was due a year ago.”

When asked why the consultant was hired in the first place, Williams replied, “You have to ask Orleans Parish Board of Assessors that question.”

It was back when the city had seven assessors that the contract was signed, and Williams was one of them; he, too, supported the effort to hire a consultant.

“That’s correct,” Williams told FOX 8. “I’m glad we did it. It’s taken the process of out the dark ages and brought it where it should be.”

Where the plan, fell short, Williams says, was failing to hire a project manager to keep the consultants on track. While Williams says he supported the idea, he says it didn’t garner enough support from the seven-member board.

The recommendations, however, will be used sometime in the future, according to Williams.

“It’s going to be used,” Williams said.

The 2012 assessments being released Monday are the result of Williams’ own office appraisers. Back in the French Quarter, Basiri just hopes their work translates to a better system.

“If they all pay their share, it’s going to help everybody.”

Jul 31, 2011

Source: Fox 8

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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