In The News › New Orleans Election: Assessor Candidate Andrew Gressett

New Orleans Election: Assessor Candidate Andrew Gressett

Tuesday, January 12, 2009
By Christopher Tidmore
BayouBuzz / Louisiana Weekly

It is hard to dislike a political candidate who begins the “education” section of his push card with the words, “St. Henry’s Grammar School (R.I.P. 1856-2008 Suppressed by Alfred “The Axe” Hughes an Alleged Archbishop).” That is Andrew Gressett, an iconic New Orleanian who has been on a years long crusade against what he has termed improprieties in the Assessors offices in the Crescent City.
In the last election, four years ago, he had the singular distinction of have running against both his incumbent district assessor and the representative of the “IQ” ticket—the only one who went on to win that year of the seven reform candidates, Nancy Marshall.

Now Gressett runs again, against Marshall’s hand-picked successor Janis Lemle and incumbents Claude Mauberret and Erroll Williams for the merged single assessor post. In fact, Gressett, the most frequent critic of the existing assessors, actually opposed the merger legislation.

“I did not think we needed to change to a single assessor immediately after Katrina. The City had other issues which should have been addressed first,” he explained to The Louisiana Weekly and Bayoubuzz. “Further, the primary reason for the change besides alleged ‘cost savings’ was to make property tax assessments ‘fair’. Even if assessments are accurate, they will not be fair, because assessments which do not reflect the true cost of living in this City because City services are not provided and are subsidized by citizens in after tax dollars; New Orleanians are not getting a fair deal.”
“Moreover, small landlords and property owners who struggled to live in the City prior to Katrina and returned to the City following the storm have faced higher costs of living such as property insurance, taxes and living expenses. With higher assessments, these additional costs make it more difficult for long term residents to remain in the City. We are gentrifying the City as we speak. This is the ultimate fairness issue. If we had addressed issues related to governance then looked to assessments, we would not be faced with this situation.”

Gressett explained that if elected assessor, he structure the staff, and make other changes, along the recommendations of the city’s most prominent good government group. “I believe the Bureau of Governmental Research has outlined in their December report ‘In All Fairness’, a blueprint for the organizational structure of the new office into three main offices: appraisal, administration and technology. I will work to implement their recommendations. Additionally, I will establish the highest professional and ethical standards for my staff. I will require continuing education in their areas of expertise in addition to any certification requirements.”

“However, I would make a few changes to the BGR report. First, to provide continuity, I would subdivide the administration section of the office into the seven traditional districts. Second, to avoid ‘smokestack bureaucracy,’ there will be cross-training of technicians within each office and a two-year evaluation of the structure during my first term. I will use a Deputy Assessor to handle the in-house organizational issues, and I will place a heavy emphasis on educating the public about the Assessor’s offices and property issues.” To staff the office with quality personnel, Gressett pledged to “make certain all positions are posted on the internet, provided to all professional organizations including minority associations, and published in local newspapers such as the ‘Louisiana Weekly’.”

“My office will affirmatively outreach to all groups in order to a cast a wide net of applicants. Current employees of the assessors’ offices will not have a priority in hiring but they will not be penalized for having worked for the seven assessors, obviously experience and knowledge of the office is a benefit but not the deciding factor.” The biggest challenge to any assessor is the task to obtain and maintain accurate property data. Gressett explained, “I believe the current software CAMA is sufficient but is not being utilized to its fullest potential. In general, appraisal staff has not monitored the assessments with sufficient field appraisals and using valuation information beyond sales information. Also valuation ratio determination on a yearly basis to determine accuracy of assessments throughout the Parish would be necessary. The office would need additional computer software such as Geographic Information System and should build the valuation information in-house.”

Answering the question, what will you instruct your staff to do to produce accurate valuations, he replied, “Besides using computer data and updating it, employees need to meet on a regular basis with appraisers, real estate professionals, businesses and civic groups to discuss economic activity and development of markets or decline of markets throughout the Parish. Using all the information discussed above, and testing it on a yearly basis, we should provide accurate assessments. In addition to accurate assessments, if my office is properly monitoring the ‘economic pulse of the City’, we should be an early warning sign for City government to direct economic development.”

To give the appeals process integrity, a frequent complaint, Gressett promised, “We will use professional real estate experts to handle the process and will seek legislation to change the composition of the Board of Review. We will stagger the process so we don’t have 1000 people trying to meet with the assessor on any given day. We will post on a web, through a site like YouTube, a tutorial for citizens explaining the process, their rights and suggestions as to what information may change our assessment.”

His office’s steps to fairly apply and rigorously monitor exemptions include indentifing “all properties which are exempt”. “We will apply current state law regarding exemptions, if we believe properties may not meet the definition, we will challenge their exemptions in accordance with state law. We will have a special posting of all nonprofit exemptions of property as well as business reductions through PILOTs (Payment-in-Lieu-Of Taxes). I will request legislation which will allow the assessor a voice in the allowance of PILOTs by the New Orleans Industrial Board.”

As assessor, to improve transparency and communication with the public, Gressett offered that he “will work to assure as much information regarding the property tax assessment process, rules, regulations and other information is posted on the internet.” “I will also make certain it is user friendly. Two, I will personally meet with interested groups, organizations and hold meetings to discuss my office and property tax issues. I will work as an educator and advocator.” Gressett outlined, so as to avoid “sticker shock” from quick rising assessments amongst his constituents, he supports a state law that would stagger any property tax increases over a four year period, and more particularly, supports a legislative statute requiring a public vote before milliages could be rolled forward after being rolled back, so the current “stealth” tax increases like the 14 mills roll forward in this year’s budget cannot occur again without public approval. “These are tax increases which the public have a right to voice and make known their approval or disapproval.”

Lastly, to protect homeowners, Gressett favors in increase in the Homestead Exemption to $100,000.00, roughly its position adjusted for inflation since the last increase in the early 1980’s. Gressett sees himself as best qualified to be assessor because “I have worked in the business of real estate for over 30 years. I bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm as a native New Orleanian to the city I love. I have a personal history which has helped me understand the importance of property rights and ownership as the cornerstone of American democracy, freedom and prosperity.” He urges all voters to go to his web site andrewgressett.com to read what he calls “my very compelling life story” and find out more reasons why he is qualified. When asked if it matters if the next assessor is White or Black, he responded, “A wise proverb tells of a tree, who took no comfort that the woodsman who would cut him down, did it with a wooden-handled axe. It matters most that the new Assessor is available to all citizens and represents not their racial background, but interests. I believe the seven assessors gave citizens immediate access and good service in general. We need to continue to provide quality service and information even though we have reduced the number of assessors.” “I hope the voters will learn through the course of this election that their concerns or my concerns. We need someone who will advocate for New Orleanian taxpayers to give them a voice when others want them to ‘shut-up and pay their taxes.’ It is the New Orleanian taxpayer who has rebuilt this City and it is they who will continue the rebirth of New Orleans.”

[Many of the questions presented before the Assessors by the Weekly are drawn from the Bureau of Governmental Research’s recommendations on “questions to ask the candidates”. This newspaper appreciates their help.] Christopher Tidmore hosts the Political Roundtable on WSLA 1560 AM New Orleans & KKAY 1590 AM Baton Rouge from 3-4 PM weekdays, online at www.wslaradio.com

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