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Report offers advice to next assessor

Expert staff, new technology urged

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By Cindy Chang, Staff writer
The Times-Picayune

The Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report Monday urging the eventual winner of New Orleans’ first citywide assessor’s election to hire an expert staff and adopt the latest computer technology to correct a “grossly inefficient” system.

The city is currently divided into seven districts, each with its own property assessor. In 2006, voters approved the change to a single assessor, with the first election for the citywide office to take place early next year along with the mayor and City Council races.

Merely putting one person in charge of assessing the entire city will not be enough to eliminate the inconsistencies that have plagued property tax bills in New Orleans for decades, the BGR report says.

“The new assessor can seize the moment and make major upgrades — or simply stitch together a somewhat modified version of the status quo,” the authors write.

The report also recommends that the Legislature revise the law that creates a gap of almost a year between when the citywide assessor is elected and when he or she takes office. Getting the new assessor seated more quickly is especially important, the report noted, because of the huge task ahead: compiling an accurate tax roll for the 2012 reassessment.

The primary is Feb. 6, with a runoff on March 6 if necessary, but according to state law, the new assessor will not take office until Jan. 1, 2011.

Two of the four candidates, Claude Mauberret and Erroll Williams, are district assessors. Janis Lemle is the chief deputy in the 6th District, and another candidate, Andrew Gressett, is a real estate broker who is not affiliated with a district office.

BGR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that has long been outspoken about what it terms “top-heavy administration, uneven assessments and inappropriate exemptions.” Monday’s report, titled “In All Fairness: Building a Model Assessment System in New Orleans,” was based partly on interviews with assessors statewide and in places such as Milwaukee that are considered to have exemplary assessment practices. The full report is available at www.bgr.org.

Rather than stacking the new office with employees from the district offices, the new assessor should conduct a wide-ranging search for appraisers with skills in areas like mapping and statistical modeling, the report said.

The new office should have a staff of 47 to 55, according to the report, which is comparable to the total number employed by the seven district offices.

Orleans Parish residents are paying $728,000 a year for the seven assessors’ salaries and expense accounts, compared with the $126,700 spent by Jefferson Parish, which has more parcels but a single assessor, the report said.

The report urges the new assessor to use “computer assisted mass appraisal,” or CAMA, which analyzes a host of variables including recent sales data, square footage, age and quality of construction to arrive at a valuation.

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