In The News › I-Team: How Biggest Assessor’s Office Spends Money

Apr 29, 2009

Source: WDSU News

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

I-Team: How Biggest Assessor’s Office Spends Money

I-Team: How Biggest Assessor’s Office Spends Money
WDSU’s Rachel Wulff Breaks Down Erroll Williams’ Expenses
POSTED: 10:16 pm CDT April 28, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — After investigating what some called outrageous expenses at the offices of some Orleans Parish tax assessors, the WDSU I-Team looked into how money is spent at the largest of the parish’s seven tax districts.

Third District Assessor Erroll Williams spent $1.8 million running his office last year.

Williams wastes no time describing how big his district is.

“Half of the properties in New Orleans are located in this district,” he said.

There are approximately 165,000 parcels in Orleans Parish. Williams has about 78,000 properties. In 2008 he spent nearly $1.8 million for an average cost of about $23 per property. He said his budget isn’t out of line when you look at other Louisiana parishes of similar size.

Bossier Parish spent nearly $2 million dollars in 2007 with 71,248 properties for approximately $28 per property. In Ouachita Parish, the assessor spent $1.5 million with nearly 87,000 properties for $17.26 per property.

“I have 17 employees. By year’s end, we should be up to 28, because this district for 20-plus years operated with about half of the staff it took to run it,” said Williams.

Of all assessors, Williams has the biggest staff, with 17 full-time employees. In 2008, Williams’ office had many different expenditures, but some of the bigger ones include:

$89,460 in legal and professional fees
$20,709 computer equipment
$9,485 in auto expenses
$11,885 in meeting and conference expenses
$6,044 in travel expenses

Williams said his largest expense is legal fees, because his district is made up of the 7th, 8th and 9th Wards, which were hardest hit during Katrina. Now that residents are returning, they often fight their 2007 reassessment, resulting in more appeals, or something called change orders.

“We valued this property at $237,000 because of the neighborhood it’s located in — on Chartres Street in Bywater. But you have no way of knowing what’s going on inside the walls. We’re not required to go inside. I have an affidavit to adjust the property back to what the damage value would be, so that creates a lot of work for us, a lot of change orders,” said Williams.

First District Assessor Darren Mire has also seen his legal fees skyrocket in recent years. He said they are the hardest thing to budget.

“You have no control over your appeal expenses. You don’t know how many appeals you’re going to get in a year, so it affects your professional development or expenses for legal fees. You have no idea how many times you’re going to get sued, or how many times you’re going to have to get an attorney,” said Mire.

Williams’ staff averages about 3,800 to 4,200 appraisals a year. That’s about what the standard is around the country. But he wants to get the job done even more efficiently and effectively. That’s one of the reasons last year he paid so much for a new computer server and other equipment. And in order to serve the public better, Williams said he will continue to budget for meeting and conference expenses.

“We send my staff to appraisal classes,” Williams said. “They may be in Maryland, Florida and Texas.”

Right now Williams spends nearly $12,000 on travel, and with more staff coming, he expects that number to be higher in 2009.

“If a guy comes in as a new appraiser, he gets to go to course one. Each year he gets to go to a course until he fulfills the requirement of the state to get certification. Usually it’s four courses, this year it’s five, because they added ethics to the course requirement,” said Williams.

Janet Howard from the Bureau of Governmental Research, a taxpayer watchdog group, has analyzed assessor expenses before.

“The problem is, it’s so difficult to compare anything in the assessor’s offices, because they use different categories for their reporting. And some of them have different fiscal years, so it’s a big roadblock to transparency,” said Howard.

She was part of the push to go from seven assessors to one in 2010.

“It’s a wasteful system. Anything where you have seven CEOs is a wasteful system,” Howard said.

Howard, a former corporate finance attorney, said having one assessor will definitely cut down legal expenses

“The more consistent you become, the more you’re able to document what you’re basing things on, the fewer appeals you have and the less time you take to discharge them,” said Howard.

She speculates how offices will merge. So does Williams. He’s already done some staffing projections.

“I believe the optimal size for the Orleans Parish Board of Assessors based on 167,000 parcels is somewhere between 58-60 employees,” said Williams.

Williams said that’s in line with other assessor offices around the country. It works out to 3,000 properties per employee per year.

“The important thing now is to make sure we get a really good assessment system in place, that has the proper technology, which the assessors have been working on,” Howard said.

Williams has been an assessor for 25 years. He was also New Orleans chief administrative officer for six years. He said he will run for the single assessor seat in 2010, as will Darren Mire from the First District. Fifth District Assessor Tom Arnold has also toyed with the idea of running, but nothing official has been announced. Sixth District Assessor Nancy Marshall will not run. The other assessors have not announced their plans yet.

According to the Bureau of Governmental Research, when they opened the assessor books a few years back, the cost per parcel in Orleans Parish was practically double what it was in Jefferson Parish and East Baton Rouge Parish.

Copyright 2009 by WDSU.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Apr 29, 2009

Source: WDSU News

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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