In The News › Is everyone paying their fair share of taxes in St. Tammany?

Mar 1, 2010

Source: WWLTV

Filed under: St. Tammany Parish, Taxation & Assessments

Is everyone paying their fair share of taxes in St. Tammany?

Monday, March 1, 2010
By Dennis Woltering
Eyewitness News, WWLTV

ST. TAMMANY, La. — How is it that the owner of the property where the Emerald Forest condominium complex has been built in St. Tammany Parish paid a property tax of $13,084 to the parish in 2001, but then less than $30 a year every year since?

Because the owner applied for a use value tax rate.

“And we had to reduce it down to land use because he did qualify for land use on this parcel here,” said Patricia Schwarz Core, the assessor for St. Tammany.

Getting the assessor to designate your property “land use,” or “use value” as it’s officially known, can slash your property taxes. For example, a property paying $25,000 in taxes at the fair market value rate could pay $60 per year at the use value rate.

“When it’s assessed at use value, it’s assessed at a lower level than it would be for fair market value,” said Janet Howard, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research watchdog group.

Like most states, Louisiana has a special, dramatically reduced category of taxation for land that is used for farming, timber production, horticulture and wetlands.

“The concept is that there are certain uses of land that you want to preserve,” Howard said. “And to make it feasible you have to tax according to what it’s worth when used for that particular purpose.”

To qualify as “use value,” the constitution says property has to meet certain criteria. It has to be wetlands, horticultural, agricultural or timberland; has to be three acres or larger or produce an average annual gross income of at least $2,000; the Tax Commission says property that gets that special rate is never valued at more than $400 per acre. If it’s sold for more than four times the “use value,” that special tax rate is supposed to go away and the property should be assessed at the fair market rate.

So how did the owner of a piece of property which sold for almost $902,000 in 2000 get taxed at the “use value” rate instead of the fair market rate?

According to Core, the owner of this property got that tax rate simply because he applied for it.

“We are not to police land use,” Core said. “The assessors do not police land use. We do not go out and inspect land use. That is not part of our job. It is up to the land owner to give us correct information and truthful information about the property when they apply for land use.”

When asked whether she or her staff checks those applications, Core responded, “We have to take their word for it.” She added that her appraisers, such as Johnny Bankston, the supervisor for the area in question, cannot be expected to notice buildings going up like these. She said it’s up to the property owner to notify the assessor that he no longer qualifies for the “use value” rate. The law says he has 60 days to do that.

When asked whether anyone has pointed out a discrepancy in land use tax, Core responded, “I’ve had, I think, two taxpayers — this is my 17th year in office — to come in and ask me to take something off the tax roll that I can remember. And that’s about it.”

She admits when Emerald Forest, L.L.C. was developing the property, it should have been taxed at the fair market rate.

“He should have, if we had known that they were being developed. If we’d have known that he was developing at that time.”

Core admits that if the owner isn’t paying his fair share, than others in St. Tammany are paying more than their fair amount.

A little over a year ago, many St. Tammany property owners complained they were paying too much property tax. They descended on Core’s office to protest their higher property tax bills.

Core said her tax rates are fair and she issued change orders in January to go back and recover the taxes St. Tammany is due from Emerald Forest for 2008 and 2009.

When asked about her statement that the state law calls for Core to be notified by the property owner within 60 days of a development, Core admitted that that is the case but responded “But we’ve never been notified by anyone yet.”

An Eyewitness News investigation found a number of properties getting the use value rate when it appears the fair market value should apply.

Among them: the Ashland Oaks business park, owned in part by state Sen. Jack Donahue. The land was purchased in December 2005 for $1,744,900.30. It was taxed at the market value rate, in 2006, at $25,505.20, then refunded all but $59 because Ashland Oaks got the use value rate. It was taxed at the use value rate in 2007 ($62), 2008 ($55.60) and 2009 ($106.64).

Another example is the property owned by Lonesome Investments L.L.C., whose owners include developer Don McMath. The group purchased more than six acres in Mandeville in 2008. Even though $1.8 million is more than four times the use value, the property got the land use rate: $31.40.

The land for the Alamosa Business Park was purchased in 2007 for $807,840.00, with a 23-acre section taxed at the use value rate: $101.85 per year.

Core said in January her office issued change orders for all of those properties to go back and recover taxes they should have been paying.

She admitted that improper or incorrect land use designations could be costing St. Tammany Parish “millions” of dollars.

She said her office would have caught the problems sooner if it were getting the building permits it should be receiving from parish government.

“But if we didn’t get a building permit, we have no way of knowing,” Core said.

She and her appraisers complain that getting building permits from parish government is a persistent problem.

“Once they went paperless they quit giving us a copy of them,” said appraisal supervisor Johnny Bankston. “And at that time we had to go down there at a certain time during the year and get a copy.”
“Building permits are our number one tool in assessing property,” Core added.

In fact, she said since the assessor doesn’t get building permits as consistently as it should, her appraisers have come across a number of buildings that have gone untaxed for years because her office didn’t even know they were there.

“We found hundreds of houses just by the field crews going out for reviews that people were filing with us in neighborhoods,” Core said.

Core and Bankston pointed to one example – Northpark, where they say they found at least six or seven houses that were not on tax rolls “for a couple years.”
WWL asked if this could be costing St. Tammany millions of dollars.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Core said.

Core said the problem rests squarely with the government of St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, because it is not sending over building permits her office needs to do its job.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d go talk to Kevin Davis’ ofice and the permit department,” Core said, “and maybe get some things done there to where we definitely get every single permit.”

Davis said his people have been forwarding the assessor .pdf computer files of all building permits, and he said a year ago, it all became so easily accessible online that anyone can get building permit information.

“You just go online now,” Davis said. “You don’t have to receive it from anybody. You don’t have to ask for it.”

He said you can drill down into the information on building permits.

“It gives you the lot number, gives you the square footage, gives you the evaluation of what the contractor told us.”

Core said what’s online doesn’t provide signatures, nor the kind of detail her office needs. She said the last batch of computer files delivered came in December 2007. She said permits on paper arrive through interoffice mail only about once a quarter.

Taxpayers might be surprised at how much of St. Tammany gets the discount “use value” tax rate. Core says 63 percent of the parish is designated as “use value,” meaning it doesn’t pay fair market value in taxes.

Mar 1, 2010

Source: WWLTV

Filed under: St. Tammany Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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