In The News › Group: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em

Feb 23, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Group: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em

Group: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em
7 would take on N.O. assessors, then quit
Thursday, February 23, 2006
By Gordon Russell
Staff writer

If you can’t get the Legislature to do what you want, go around it.

That’s the rallying cry of a New Orleans group that has sprung to life in the wake of the recent
special session to field a candidate against each of the city’s seven assessors with a single
campaign promise: the de facto consolidation of the fragmented and much-criticized system
used to assess property, a proposal that failed in the Legislature.

Each member of the self-described IQ Ticket — the “IQ” stands for “I Quit” — would sign a pledge
promising to donate his or her assessor’s salary to a fund that would pay a professional appraisal
firm to do the grunt work of determining the taxable value of property citywide, said local lawyer
Shaun Rafferty, the group’s leader.

Rafferty said the group, which includes nine civic activists, is recruiting candidates. Although
none is ready to announce a candidacy, Rafferty said he expects seven candidates will have
signed the pledge by the time qualifying ends March 3.

The group could not legally merge the seven assessor offices without amending the state
Constitution. But Rafferty said the IQ Ticket, if successful, would function essentially as a
volunteer board of directors, hiring the private firm, directing its work and eventually approving
the tax rolls. Those who sign the pledge also would commit to working “tirelessly” for the
consolidation of the seven offices into one, and they would further agree to step down should
such a merger occur, he said.

Paul Cordes, a lawyer involved in the group, said the organization’s candidates, if elected, would
have a role similar to volunteer panels like the City Planning Commission. The commission
makes its own decisions, but it is advised by a group of paid professionals who do the research
and field work.

“Our concept is that they would act like a board of directors,” Cordes said.

Failed bill fans flames

Rafferty said the group began to coalesce shortly after a House committee this month killed a bill
by House Speaker Joe Salter that would have asked voters across the state to amend the state
Constitution to consolidate the seven assessors’ office into one. New Orleans is the only city in
the country with such a system, and Orleans is the only parish in the state with several
assessors.

The bill died on an 8-6 vote. Those who voted against the proposal included state Reps. Jeff
Arnold and Alex Heaton, both D-New Orleans. Arnold’s father, Tom Arnold, is the 5th District
assessor. Heaton’s brother, Henry Heaton, is the 7th District assessor.

Rafferty said the committee’s actions — particularly the decision by Reps. Arnold and Heaton to
vote on the matter rather than recuse themselves — led to the formation of the IQ group.

Members were also spurred by Tom Arnold’s testimony before the committee, in which he asked
rhetorically: “Where else can you walk into a 108-year old courthouse (in Algiers) and have a cup
of coffee or Coke and visit with your assessor?”

That’s the problem, Rafferty said.

“We don’t want any more fiefdoms, and no more having a cup of coffee with your assessor,” he
said. “Every time someone has a cup of coffee with their assessor, in our view, a political deal
gets made at the expense of a school kid or a cop.”

Long-sought change

The inadequacies of the current system have been well-documented and date to well before the
recent session, though it remains to be seen whether voters, many of whom are happy with
outdated assessments, want a change.

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research has long called for a single-assessor
system, saying New Orleans’ Byzantine setup is wasteful and results in haphazard appraisals.
In 2004, The Times-Picayune studied home sales in New Orleans and found that on average,
homes that sold in 2003 were assessed for 41 percent less than their market value. A
subsequent study by the state Tax Commission found similar problems, and the board ordered a
reappraisal of all residential property in New Orleans, which is due this year.

Last month, a BGR report showed assessors depreciated property after Hurricane Katrina in
wildly different ways. Some owners of unflooded homes, for instance, saw no change in their
assessments, while others got depreciations of 50 percent or more. In some cases, neighbors
living across the street from one another — but in different assessorial districts — were treated in
disparate ways.

Rafferty said many voters would like a chance to weigh in on whether the city needs seven
assessors, but they can’t do so without the cooperation of the Legislature.

“I believe there is significant sentiment out there to do this,” he said.

One assessor unfazed

First District Assessor Darren Mire said Wednesday that he has heard rumors about the group
and has no objection to it. Mire added that he had no say in the creation of the seven-assessor
system but feels he has done his job within the confines of the position.

“I run a professional office,” said Mire, who was elected in 2002. “I can’t help the system of seven
assessors. We have a CAMA (computer-assisted mass appraisal) system that we didn’t have
four years ago. Our assessments are online. We didn’t have that four years ago. The bottom line
is I’m going to run on my record. Let the chips fall where they may.”

None of the other six assessors returned phone calls Wednesday.

Rafferty and Cordes said they are still researching the legal nuances of their group’s platform, for
which they have found little precedent. For instance, they haven’t figured out whether the
assessors who sign the pledge could wind up liable for taxes on their income even if they refuse
the salary. If that turned out to be the case, they said they would alter the pledge so that the
assessor was paid enough to cover his tax liability.

“We certainly would not contemplate having someone pay the tax out of their pocket,” Cordes
said.

Possible kinks in plan

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which has argued in favor of a oneassessor
system for New Orleans, called the platform “a very interesting and novel approach.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before,” Erwin said. “We’ve certainly had people
who want to kick the bums out, but this is a little different.”

But Erwin questioned whether the model would work, noting that it could prove awkward if some
but not all of the seven IQ Ticket candidates won. At the same time, he said, such an outcome
could provide a side-by-side comparison of the two methods.

At any rate, he said the campaign could bring more attention to the issue, which he welcomes.
“I think the bigger point is that this sends a message,” he said. “This will create an atmosphere
for more debate on this at the Legislature.”

But Rafferty and Cordes said they’re not just trying to make a point — they want to win.
“This is not a cavalier or joking approach to government,” Rafferty said.
. . . . . . .
Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347.

Feb 23, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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