In The News › New Orleans Elections: Assessor Candidate Janis Lemle

New Orleans Elections: Assessor Candidate Janis Lemle

Monday, January 25, 2010
By Christopher Tidmore
BayouBuzz / Louisiana Weekly

Janis Lemle is the heir of the IQ candidates who struggled for a single assessor four years ago. She has served as Chief Deputy to the only victorious candidate that year, Nancy Marshall, attempting to provide rational and fair assessments in her Uptown 6th District.

The reason for realistic and fair assessments of all properties is simple, Lemle explained to www.louisianaweekly.com and Bayoubuzz. “If everyone pays their fair share, the property tax rate goes down. Overall, everyone will pay less in taxes. Right now, some property owners are paying the taxes of other people. If that stops, the whole city, every taxpayer, pays a lower rate.”

She argues that the property tax rate could reduce significantly if all properties are properly assessed, well below 100 mills—a drop from the current 144 mills, and below the 108 mills that Jefferson Parish levies as its property tax rate.

That’s why, Janis Lemle maintained, she runs for the merged single assessor position in the February 6, 2010 election.

Lemle sees herself as best qualified for the position. “The field of candidates for assessor consists of: a perennial candidate who makes bombastic and silly pronouncements about reducing everyone’s assessment 20% his first day in office, and who is not really interested in serving this city (Andrew Gressett); an assessor who has held office for 14 years and whose assessments of property in his district are egregiously inaccurate and an embarrassment in a city that is all too familiar with corruption (Claude Maubarret); an assessor who has held office for nearly 30 years and whose district was rated [by the daily paper] as one of the most inaccurately assessed districts (March 15, 2008), but who now talks about what he will do as the single assessor to reform the office (Errol Williams); and me.”

“I am an attorney, who knows the law and will use my advocacy skills to benefit this city and its people. I am a certified Louisiana assessor who is capable of directing the assessor’s office to provide accurate assessments. I am committed to a transparent assessor’s office, and will provide a level of customer service that New Orleanians deserve and have a right to expect.”

“I do not seek this office for how it might benefit me. I have stated publicly, and I state here that if elected, I will not endorse anyone running for public office and I will work for legislation that prohibits state assessors from endorsing candidates for public office. A good way to predict the next four years of property assessments in this city is to look at the past four years.”

“The best qualified assessor is one who is committed to doing the job of assessing. That candidate is me.”

Then, reflecting on her own personal experience, she added, “I am a native New Orleanian who had lots of family in this city prior to Katrina. Because I live on the Westbank, where there was not wide scale flooding, I was the only one in my family who did not lose her home to the storm. In helping family members who were living out of state deal with their property issues, I interacted with all of the assessor’s offices and was appalled at the lack of efficiency and simply the lack of work (assessing property) that had (not) been done over the years.”

“All of my adult life, I have done volunteer work in this city. I thought of it as a way for me to step in and fill a void. My decision to seek public office was born out of the same public spirit that spurred my volunteerism. There is a void in the city’s leadership that I am qualified and willing to fill. That is why I am running for Assessor for Orleans Parish.”

Lemle outlined her plan, “I would restructure the Assessor’s Office using a three-tier system, allowing for an Appraisal/Assessment Department, Technology Department, and an Administration Department. Each of these departments will be staffed with the most qualified and experienced personnel possible. This will allow for maximum efficiency and customer service.”

“The assessors will have expertise in all types of property that have to be valued: residential, commercial, industrial, light industrial, in order to assure accurate assessments. The technology department will have the responsibility of updating and maintaining the www.OPBOA.org website and performing studies that determine the overall accuracy of our assessments and inputting information about properties into the database which will be used to assist with assessing properties. The administration tier will include, among other positions, education and community outreach officers who will be available for public meetings to answer questions related to property assessments.”

In order to staff the office with quality personnel, Lemle explained, “It is of paramount importance that each tier of the Assessor’s Office is staffed with the most qualified and capable personnel possible. After determining the needs of the office, specific job descriptions and necessary qualifications for each position will be drafted and a search conducted for individuals that fit the specified criteria. This search will be conducted using print media, personnel firms, and advertising in industry publications. Paying competitive salaries is an important component in realizing a qualified staff.”

So as to obtain and maintain accurate property data, she pledged to focus on “Data collection and maintaining a computer based system for doing assessments, mapping, ratio studies and performing self-monitoring of the office” These are key components of an efficient assessor’s office, in Lemle’s view. “A technology department staffed with qualified people is a start.”

“However, there must be oversight of the technology and periodic testing, checking and re-checking of the information being input. Supervision of the data collection and maintenance of the system will be the responsibility of the technology department director.”

In order to produce accurate valuations, Lemle said, “The people on my staff who will be producing valuations will be certified assessors or appraisers who will know and understand the importance of using the best practices as outlined in the industry standards and ethics publications.”

“The work of all assessors will be monitored via testing of the data in the database. Any ‘outliers’, properties that are grossly under assessed or over assessed will be thrown out by the system and those properties will be reviewed by an assessor at the supervisory level.”

Critics have wondered about the integrity of the appeals process. To that end, Lemle maintained, “Any review process benefits when those who rely on it or are affected by it KNOW of the process. The appeals process should not be proprietary information known only to a few people. Alltaxpayers should know the steps of the appeals process and what their rights are regarding contesting their assessments. “

“This information will be provided to the public via the Assessor’s website and in printed form. Another way to give the appeals process integrity is to expose inequities in the appeals system to governing bodies that can rectify to inequities. In October of 2009, I and Nancy Marshall appeared before the City Council to inform them that the law firm which had been contracted to act as the Board of Review had acted on a number of appeals in which they had a clear conflict of interest. I will require my staff to disclose any conflict of interest, whether real or apparent, regarding any assessment or appeal handled by the assessor’s office.”

To fairly and rigorously monitor exemptions, Lemle said she would take the following steps. “For homestead exemptions, the office will use its technology department to run checks to weed out those people who have more than one exemption in the State of Louisiana. Name checks will also be run against the Social Security data base of deceased persons to catch those who sign the name of a decedent to an exemption card.”

“Where intentional fraud is suspected, those matters will be referred to the District Attorney’s office. In any instance where someone had an exemption who should not have, I will take full advantage of the La. Revised Statue that allows the Assessor’s Office to correct tax bill errors for the current year plus three past years, and those people will be billed for the difference.”

“As to those entities that claim exemption from ad valorem taxes, those entities will be required to complete an application explaining the basis of their exempt status and submit copies of the documentation provided to the state/federal authorities which granted the exemption. These applications and the documentation will be updated periodically as a requirement for the exempt status to continue.”

When asked the question, “What will you, as assessor, do to improve transparency and communication with the public,” she replied, “I believe that transparency is necessary to restore the public’s confidence in the Assessor’s Office.”

“As one of my first duties as Assessor, I will seek an opinion from the state Attorney General clarifying what information/documents in the Assessor’s office are public. Any public document or information will be available to anyone who requests it.”

“Further, I will seek the assistance and advice of respected civic groups like the Bureau of Governmental Research, Public Affairs Research Council, Council for a Better Louisiana, etc., to form a watch committee, similar to Court Watch. This committee will have full access to the methods used and the information obtained by the Assessor’s Office and will have my full cooperation in answering any questions regarding the performance of my office.”

“Regarding improving communication with the public, there will be a concerted effort to engage the public in discourse and inform the citizens of New Orleans about property issues. Periodically, during the year, the Assessor’s Office will make use of public buildings, such as libraries and community/senior centers as satellite offices. Anyone can come to these ‘satellite offices’ and conduct any business they would normally conduct at the assessor’s office in City Hall.”

“It is my goal to provide the citizens of New Orleans with stellar customer service from their assessor’s office. It is incumbent on the Assessor to make things as convenient as possible for the citizenry. It is not the job of the citizens to make things convenient for the assessor.”

Lemle did duck the question, “Do you support a state law that would stagger any property tax increases over a four year period as to avoid ‘sticker shock’ from quick rising assessments?”
She responded obliquely, “The collection process is strictly within the purview of the Treasury Department for the City of New Orleans and I would have no legal authority to implement the measures you describe. The job of the Assessor is to accurately assess property, and that will be my focus.”

However, as Assessor Lemle does have the ability to lobby the legislature on issues related to her office. The initiative is a major point of contention in the current campaign. Lemle’s opponent Erroll Williams helped write such a statute in the last legislative session, but failed to convince his fellow assessors to support the measure in Baton Rouge. It failed, but in debates Williams has vowed to re-introduce the measure.

Lemle did say she supported a measure to allow collection of property taxes over a year rather than in one lump payment.

Nor did Lemle promise that as Assessor, she would support a state law requiring a public vote before millages could be rolled forward after being rolled back—or that she would back such a measure on the parish level.

She did maintain, though that in general she would fight millages being rolled forward, stating, “I would support a measure on the parish level that would require any taxing body which had an excess of funds at the end of its fiscal year to show good cause before the City Council why its share of the millage should not be rolled back accordingly.”

“As to a state law requiring a public vote, I think that is an expensive process, and the problem of taxing bodies gouging taxpayers may be better handled by a legislative committee making recommendations to the legislature for its vote.”

Lemle also opposes raising the Homestead Exemption. “I do not support raising the homestead exemption. The exemption we have is allowed by the Louisiana State Constitution, and you may be sure it will be with us for some time to come. Raising the homestead exemption would only cause a spike in the millage rate, and nothing would be gained.”

Unlike her opponents, Lemle was an early supporter of the single assessor bill. “I wholeheartedly supported the one assessor bill. It was clear to me that the seven assessor system was fraught with inequities in assessments and created an undue tax burden by allowing some property owners egregiously low assessments which everyone else paid for. There was no uniformity of methodology or services. The seven assessor system was obsolete decades ago. All of New Orleans will benefit from the one assessor system – provided the right one assessor is elected.”

On the question if it matters if the next assessor is White or Black, she replied, “No. It only matters that the next assessor is one who is qualified, capable and committed to providing New Orleans first and foremost with accurate assessments.”

“My commitment is to provide accurate assessments, transparency of office and professional, courteous service to New Orleanians. We have a chance to move forward from the old assessor system. I represent that change.”

[The BGR aided in the assembly of questions for the candidates. We appreciate their help.]

Christopher Tidmore hosts Louisiana Roundtable from 3-4 PM, Monday-Friday on WSLA 1560 AM New Orleans and KKAY 1590 AM Baton Rouge, online at www.globalradiokkay.com.

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