In The News › N.O. assessor election takes on a new value in wake of Katrina

Apr 16, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

N.O. assessor election takes on a new value in wake of Katrina

N.O. assessor election takes on new value in wake of Katrina
Dissatisfaction sparks creation of ‘IQ’ ticket
Friday, April 14, 2006
By Jeffrey Meitrodt
Staff writer

When potential voters ask lawyer Nancy Marshall for an example of what her main opponent in
the assessors’ race is doing wrong, she doesn’t have to look any farther than her own back yard.
Though she and her husband carry a $450,000 mortgage on their Uptown home, a fact readily
available to 6th District Assessor Albert Coman, the property on Lowerline Street was valued at
just $338,300 last year.

Furthermore, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Coman chopped the value even further: to
$212,800, even though the property didn’t flood and sustained no more than $25,000 worth of
wind damage, all of which was covered by Marshall’s insurance company. Marshall said the
house is worth $650,000.

“That is a perfect example of some very lousy appraising,” said Marshall, one of seven
candidates running on the so-called “I Quit” ticket, whose platform calls for creating a uniform
assessment system and reducing the number of assessors in New Orleans from seven to one.
“We know there was no science involved in this. There is no system. And that happens all over
the city.”

In New Orleans, such complaints have become familiar in recent years, as the city’s seven
assessors have been repeatedly blasted for widespread inequities in the tax rolls.

But when the state Legislature killed a bill during the February special session that would have
created a single assessor’s office in the city, the discontent crystallized into a political movement
that threatens to topple a group of incumbents who typically breeze through the qualifying period
without drawing any opponents.

“Usually, they are very low-profile races,” said Coman, whose family has held the 6th District
post since 1936.

Not this year.

Hitting the airwaves

Backed by a group of well-heeled lawyers and real-estate agents, the “IQ” ticket has $50,000 in
the bank and another $100,000 in commitments, which will allow the group to air $85,000 worth
of television commercials in the 10 days leading up to the election, according to IQ campaign
manager Shaun Rafferty.

The ads will tout the entire ticket, not any single candidate, and will focus on consolidation and
the group’s pledge to refuse their salaries and use the money to hire professional real estate
appraisers to assess property, Rafferty said.

The incumbents have no such plans. Though the seven had about $250,000 in the bank as of
March 13, the last reporting period, the two candidates with the biggest war chests have not
decided whether to take the battle to the airwaves.

There also will be no joint promotions.

“I broached the idea with the other assessors about doing an educational campaign, but they
don’t want to spend the money on that,” said 3rd District Assessor Erroll Williams, who has more
than $90,000 to spend on the race. “They are going to do their own individual campaigns.”

A push to modernize

Like his fellow incumbents, Williams said he thinks he’s getting a bum rap from the IQ
candidates. While acknowledging that some properties in the city have been woefully
underassessed in the past, Williams and other assessors said they deserve credit for
modernizing their offices.

For the past year, they noted, residents have been able to go online and check the assessment
of anyone they choose, which the assessors said greatly increases the accountability of their
operations. The assessors’ Web site, however, was launched about a year after Mayor Ray
Nagin’s administration posted the tax roll online without the assessors’ permission.

More importantly, a new $1.2 million computer system will be running by the end of the month,
replacing an antiquated system that dated to 1978. Assessors hope to obtain another $10 million
or so, perhaps through federal grants or from the Legislature, to begin an exhaustive survey of
all properties in the parish and then feed that data into the new system.

Property descriptions, such as the number of rooms in a house and the square footage, haven’t
been updated on a citywide basis since the computer system was installed 27 years ago.
Williams said he thinks the data collection process is going to upset a lot of people, “but when I
leave this office — whether it is on April 22 or four or eight years from now — I will know that our
efforts to modernize the assessment process means I won’t have to worry about my neighbor
getting a better deal than I got.”

Second District Assessor Claude Mauberret said the new system, if completely financed, “should
correct 99 percent of any inequities” on the tax rolls.

It’s not clear, however, if the assessors have lined up the support they need to finish modernizing
the system. In fact, Gov. Kathleen Blanco seems more intent on consolidating the seven offices
during the current legislative session.

Critics say the incumbents’ efforts to improve their offices smack of politics, not good
government.

“I find it strange that all of this has been happening in the last year, when the election was
coming around,” said Errol George, the IQ candidate in the 3rd District. “They’re only doing these
things because they are desperate and need to do something to make the public think they are
making progress.”

Studies fault system

The shortcomings of the current system are well-documented.

In 2003, the Louisiana Tax Commission, following the mandate of a new state law, checked out
the values of homes owned by each of the state’s 70 assessors and their immediate family
members. Only in New Orleans were major problems discovered. The commission found that
almost half the properties in New Orleans owned by assessors or their relatives was
undervalued by as much as 70 percent, and that some of the biggest breaks went to the
assessors themselves.

Seventh District Assessor Henry Heaton drew the most fouls: Not only was his property
underassessed, but so were the homes of his brother and sister, by as much as 50 percent. After
the report came out, Heaton changed the values to the amounts recommended by the tax
commission, which quadrupled the tax bill of his brother, state Rep. Alex Heaton.
Henry Heaton declined to comment at the time, and he didn’t respond to several recent requests
for an interview.

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.
In many cases, the inequities were startling. For instance, a French Quarter town house sold for
$3.5 million in 2003, though it had been valued at just $260,000 by Mauberret. After the sale, the
property’s annual tax bill jumped from $3,297 to $58,745.

Mauberret said it’s much harder to assess property in the French Quarter, where many large
properties are hidden behind simple facades, than it is in newer areas such as Lakeview, where
the properties are in plain sight and real estate values are more predictable.

“It is hard to gauge what something is going to sell for, especially in the French Quarter,” said
Mauberret, whose family has held the post of 2nd District assessor for more than 100 years.
“Once you get behind the facade, you could find a four-bedroom house that hasn’t been
renovated since the 1950s, or a beautiful courtyard with a pool. . . . Very rarely do we go into the
building.”

In 2005, the tax commission did another study of residential property in New Orleans and again
found widespread problems. Though assessments were generally accurate for properties that
had recently changed hands, the commission discovered huge disparities for properties that had
not gone through a change of ownership in recent years. Overall, about 80 percent of
assessments in New Orleans were deemed flawed.

All seven assessors flunked the test, which called for assessments to be within 10 percent of
market value. Williams and 5th District Assessor Tom Arnold had the most accurate rolls in the
city, while those maintained by 1st District Assessor Darren Mire and 4th District Assessor Betty
Jefferson were the least accurate.

Mire said he shouldn’t be held accountable for the problems, because the 2005 report was based
on 2003 assessments, which were done by his predecessor, Patricia Johnson. Mire, who was
elected in 2002, said he didn’t reassess property until the 2004 tax year.

Jefferson, who has held her office since 1998, didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

Shifting values

In the wake of Katrina, assessment practices in New Orleans took a pounding again when the
nonprofit watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research found huge disparities in the way local
assessors revalued homes after the storm.

Though residents in many unflooded parts of the city received no reductions in their 2005
assessments, property owners in other dry parts of town received huge tax breaks.

Some of the biggest disparities involved Coman’s district, where homes on one side of St.
Charles Avenue were marked down 15 percent and homes across the neutral ground got a 50
percent reduction. Homes on both sides of the oak-lined avenue remained dry after the storm.
The disparities in many cases had more to do with the lines of assessor districts than floodwater
depth. For instance, unflooded homes near the river in the 4th District, just on the downtown side
from the 6th, got no breaks. Values on the houses on the Uptown side of Lowerline Street — the
center of which forms the barrier between the 6th and the 7th districts — were slashed even more
precipitously than those on the downtown side.

Coman acknowledged that his office was too generous in some instances when it came to
calculating hurricane damage. In fact, he said, he already has taken back about $50 million in
reductions granted after the hurricane.

But he blamed any mistakes on the short amount of time his staff had to come up with the new
assessments, which were ordered up by the Legislature in November. In Marshall’s case,
Coman said she should have notified him if she thought her assessment was too low.
“Did she call and tell us that? We’d have raised them back up,” Coman said. “A couple of people
did that. But none of my opponents did that.”

Marshall said Coman is blaming the wrong person.

“Please. I have to do his job for him? Even before I’m elected?” Marshall said. “I don’t want to
pay taxes higher than others. I just want to pay my fair share.”

A full slate

There are 21 candidates for assessor this year, making it the largest field in decades. The line
between the incumbents and their challengers couldn’t be clearer: All the incumbents argue
against merging the seven offices, and — with one exception — all the challengers favor the idea.
Benita Scott, a self-employed activist who is running for the 4th District seat, said she remains
undecided on the issue.

Mire said the number of assessors is less important than the qualifications they bring to the job.
“We don’t know if a single assessor would make things better, because there is one assessor in
other places and there is not uniformity there,” Mire said. “I think people should have some type
of experience in real estate to run for assessor. I think we need to start requiring that.”

Members of the IQ ticket and other challengers said merging the offices is the only way to rid the
city of the irregularities that plague the system.

They say it is ridiculous for New Orleans to have seven assessors, when no other major city in
the country has more than one.

Williams, whose district includes nearly half the property in New Orleans, agreed that all of the
work in the city could be handled by one assessor. Look at Houston, he said, a city that has 2
million pieces of real estate and one assessor. By comparison, New Orleans has less than
200,000 pieces of property.

The difference, he said, is that Houston spends more than $20 million a year on property
assessment, while New Orleans spends just $3.3 million.

But Williams’ chief concern with the proposed merger is not logistics, it’s politics.

“You don’t want one assessor with all of that power, because as time goes on, that person will
anoint or appoint your next mayor and your councilmen and your state representatives and
things like that,” Williams said.

Votes required

Even if the entire IQ slate wins, there is no guarantee that New Orleans will wind up with one
assessor. Members of the group cannot simply quit and erase their offices. Consolidation not
only would require legislative action on a proposed constitutional amendment, but also the
measure would have to pass both a statewide vote and a local vote.

IQ members acknowledge that the election is just the first step in a long process, but they said
they believe legislators are unlikely to act on the issue unless local residents send a message by
electing at least some of their candidates.

“The ultimate goal is the constitutional amendment, not getting people into this office,” Rafferty
said.

That’s exactly what worries some people. As part of their platform, the IQ candidates have
agreed to leave the day-to-day operations of their offices to outside experts if they are elected.
They have promised to pay for those workers with their own salaries, and forego all other
financial benefits of the office. Their main role, they said, would be setting policy.

“I think it is illegal to take an oath to do a job, and then refuse to do that job and give someone
else the responsibility for that job,” said former Assistant City Attorney Gerard Archer, who is
running in the 4th District. “While the IQ people have a very good idea about consolidation, the
rest of their idea is not very well thought out.”

Coman, who is running against a pair of lawyers, said he wonders how they are going to find
time to manage the office.

“I don’t think they realize how much is involved,” Coman said. “It is not a part-time job, it is a full – time job, and to treat it as anything else is not doing the office justice.”

Some of the IQ candidates admit they either don’t have the qualifications for the job or the time
to devote to a full-time government position.

Maria Elliott, an oboe player who works as a fund-raiser for Trinity Episcopal Church, said she
wouldn’t bring any expertise to the job of 1st District assessor.

“I would say this isn’t about qualifications,” Elliott said. “This has more to do with public action
and trying to change a system that is broken.”

Marshall, who helps run a 200-person law firm, said she has no intention of quitting her job if she
replaces Coman.

“I think the IQ candidates are committed to helping one another,” said Marshall, who typically
works 60 hours a week at her law firm. “And believe me, I’ll do a better job than my predecessor
did.”

So what happens if some, but not all, of the IQ candidates win?

“Even if it was just three of us, we could guarantee that those three districts would be assessed
using the same standards,” said 4th District candidate Chase Jones, who was recently hired to
sell corporate sponsorships for Tulane University’s athletic department. “I think that would go a
long way toward cleaning up the existing system.”

Not all of the incumbents draw fire from the IQ slate. Though they are critical of the current
system, most of the IQ members agree that Mire has done a good job in the 1st District, and they
offered few complaints about the work of either Arnold or Williams.

“I think two or three of these folks should run for election when we have a single assessor,” said
real estate broker Ron Mazier, who is running in the 5th District. “And if any of them become the
one assessor, I think New Orleans would be a better place. But with seven cooks in the kitchen,
you never get a good plate of food.”
. . . . . . .
Jeffrey Meitrodt can be reached at jmeitrodt@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3497.

Apr 16, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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