In The News › Keep an eye on next New Orleans assessor: An editorial

Keep an eye on next New Orleans assessor: An editorial

Sunday, December 27, 2009
By Editorial page staff
The Times-Picayune

Replacing New Orleans’ seven elected tax assessors with a single assessor was a triumph of civic activism, a sign that New Orleanians were determined not just to rebuild their city but to reform its government.

That change, which voters decided to make in 2006, will finally be realized next year, when voters will elect one assessor on the same ballot as mayor and City Council. But while the election is a critical step forward, it is only the first step toward a property tax assessment system that is fair, equitable and rational.

The seven-assessor system was a highly politicized system where some assessors low-balled assessments of supporters and similar properties in the same neighborhood had wildly different valuations. Some people paid less than their share, while others were overly burdened. The property tax rate became unnecessarily high, which hampered economic growth.

Having one office instead of seven certainly should be more efficient and bring more consistency in how property values are assessed. But it doesn’t guarantee that needed reforms will be made. That’s why the Bureau of Governmental Research is urging New Orleans voters to follow the election carefully and press candidates for the single assessor’s office for answers on how they’ll change the office. BGR outlines how to build a model assessment system in New Orleans in a report called “In All Fairness.’‘

One critical change that must be addressed by the state Legislature is the gap in time between the end of the seven assessors’ term on May 2, 2010, and the start of the new assessor’s term on Jan. 1, 2011. New Orleanians have already waited a long time for this change to go into effect. An eight-month gap will leave the new assessor scrambling to put the tools and staff in place for the 2012 reassessment, forcing the consolidated office to rely on seven sets of valuations calculated seven different ways.

It makes far more sense for the single assessor to take office immediately, and lawmakers should move quickly to amend the state law.

The seven-assessor system created top-heavy organizations that lacked staff with specialized skills that are key to accurate valuations, the BGR report says. The new assessor should have departments devoted to appraisal, technology and administration, it says.

Choosing staff is also critical. BGR wisely warns against simply rehiring everyone from the old system; instead, the new assessor should use a competitive application process. Neither state law nor the Orleans Parish Board of Assessors sets standards for minimum education or professional qualifications, but BGR is urging the new assessor to set such standards and create a more specialized work force.

Putting together the right staff with the right skills will enable the new assessor to do work in-house instead of contracting with a private firm. For example, the seven assessors recently hired a contractor to collect data on property, at the cost of $8.9 million. That’s after removing residential property from the contract because the assessors lacked the resources to pay for it.

The new assessor should develop an in-house data collection and maintenance program to keep property information current, something that BGR says didn’t happen under the old system. And the assessor should protect the investment that’s already been made in data by making sure that it is continuously updated. That’s especially important in post-Katrina New Orleans, where housing stock is undergoing rapid change.

The new assesssor also should use technology like computer-assisted mass appraisal, or CAMA, a tool that creates models that include many factors, such as neighborhood, recent sales and property characteristics from square footage to quality of construction. The Board of Assessors bought a CAMA system in 2003 but have only used it as a database. Using this technology to produce valuations will be better than adjusting a property’s assessment based on recent sales prices, a practice BGR calls sales chasing.

BGR notes that the new assessor will need to carefully monitor the results of computer-assisted mass appraisal to address New Orleans’ variety among and within neighborhoods. The report also points to the need for regular self-monitoring.

The BGR report calls for an appeals process that requires property owners who are contesting assessments to make a compelling case. The absence of standardized appeals procedures encourages property owners to think they can negotiate their assessments, the report said. Indeed, some assessors encouraged that idea.

The assessor is also responsible for monitoring tax-exempt properties, which BGR says has been a low priority. But the new assessor should be more aggressive: interpreting exemptions strictly, keeping tax-exempt assessments current, requiring reapplication and inspecting to make sure properties are entitled to that status.

The new assessor faces a big job — reinventing what has been an inefficient, inaccurate and politicized system and making it the model that New Orleanians had in mind when they pushed for change in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But that’s what New Orleans voters should demand.

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.