In The News › Nagin vanishes on assessor issue

Oct 29, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Nagin vanishes on assessor issue

Nagin vanishes on assessor issue
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Stephanie Grace

Mayor Ray Nagin doesn’t bring it up much these days, but if you ask his staff about the upcoming vote to merge New Orleans’ seven assessor offices, they’ll remind you that he’s “been ahead of the curve” on the issue.

Nagin was hardly the first to point out that the assessors, jockeying to win votes, routinely undervalue homes owned by longtime residents and political pals. He wasn’t the only one to notice that the practice hurts the city’s bottom line and drives away new residents who have to pay more so that the favored class can pay less — in some cases, next to nothing. Or that, in every other parish in the state and most cities across the nation, one person handles the job just fine.

Yes, it was a top Nagin aide who first posted assessments on the city’s Web site — and the assessors pitched quite a fit over the incursion onto their precious turf. Putting the assessments on-line allowed Nagin’s constituents to see the vast inequities with their own eyes.

So let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the mayor did indeed get the ball rolling. But you’ve got to wonder, now that the issue is finally coming to a vote of the people, why we have to be reminded that Nagin’s on board.

Since that initial volley with the assessors early in his first term, the mayor has played the issue in typical Nagin fashion: He called out the assessors, and then did, well, nothing.

When the Bureau of Governmental Research uncovered even more egregious inequities among post-Katrina assessments of unflooded properties, when a citizen uprising gathered steam over wasteful, fiefdom-driven business as usual by the assessors, Nagin was quiet.

When legislative apologists for the status quo, led by the son of one New Orleans assessor and the brother of another, brought whining and diversionary tactics to a new level in their fight to keep the measure off the ballot, it was Gov. Kathleen Blanco, state Rep. Austin Badon and state Sen. Ann Duplessis — not Nagin or anyone else in city government — who went mano a mano with them, and won.

All three state-level officials are now campaigning for passage of the constitutional amendment on Nov. 7, along with a long list of citizen and advocacy groups. Nagin, to date, is not. Asked if the mayor planned to get involved, his spokeswoman, Ceeon Quiett, said Nagin “would support if asked,” but “we have not allocated any resources to initiate our own campaign.”

That’s too bad, because it’s the city Nagin governs, much more than the state, that stands to benefit from reform.

At the state level, the issue is about appearances and politics. In the city, it comes right down to revenue and economic recovery. The mayor, who is busy preparing next year’s budget, knows that. He knows he needs a stable tax base to rebuild streets, hire police and support his pricey new garbage contract. He knows that the city needs to present a more welcoming face to potential new residents, as well as to flooded-out folks who must now move to new homes. And both groups — the returnees and the new arrivals — would be punished financially under the current system. Nagin knows that having one assessor doesn’t guarantee fairness, but that having seven guarantees unfairness.

And he knows that the badly needed reform is going to take extra salesmanship in New Orleans where, even if the amendment passes statewide, a majority still has to approve the consolidation.

Some of the current assessors are campaigning against reform by waxing nostalgic over the old tradition of cutting breaks for favored constituents — “sitting down for coffee,” as they euphemistically put it. They raise the specter of higher taxes, and of one all-powerful politician. Algiers assessor Tom Arnold has even dropped controversial names like Marc Morial and Sherman Copelin, the former mayor and the former legislator, although neither has shown the remotest interest in becoming a candidate to run a consolidated assessor office.

Misleading and dishonest rhetoric from incumbent assessors fearful of losing their jobs is exactly why responsible New Orleans leaders should be out there countering the campaign. And with five of seven city council members — President Oliver Thomas and the four newcomers, Arnie Fielkow, Shelley Midura, Stacy Head and James Carter — also in support, Nagin would have plenty of back-up.

So, yes, let’s say Nagin helped start the drive. We all know he’s a strong starter. But we’re still waiting to see evidence that he can close. Now would be a good time to show us.

. . . . . . .

Stephanie Grace can be reached at sgrace@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3383.

STAFF ILLUSTRATION BY KENNETH HARRISON

Oct 29, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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