In The News › Seven-assessor system in New Orleans ‘was responsive, but not necessarily responsible’

Jan 2, 2011

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

Seven-assessor system in New Orleans ‘was responsive, but not necessarily responsible’

Sunday, January 2, 2011
By Frank Donze
The Times-Picayune

“They’ll all have their turn,” said the assessor, with a wave of his hand toward the clients. “Everybody in the ward that have any trouble is here, and if they don’t be here, they should be here. And anybody in Noo Wawlins is welcome. They all have somebody that they want to get into a hospital, or a job working for the Levee Board, or things of that nature and so forth. When I hear what they want, if it can be done, I process it to its final completion.”

— A description of an encounter with 1st District Assessor James Comiskey penned by A.J. Liebling in “The Earl of Louisiana,” his book on Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long’s final year in office.

There was a time when a New Orleans assessor was the “Mr. Fix-it” of local politics, the go-to guy for everything from potholes to parking tickets.

Starting in the 1880s, the city’s seven tax assessors reigned over their districts like tribal chieftains, in some cases wielding more power than the mayor, the sheriff or a councilman.

In a 1988 interview, former Mayor Moon Landrieu recalled the weekly sessions citizens had with Comiskey, who held the 1st District assessor’s job from 1934 until his death in 1972.

“Just like at McKenzie’s bakery, you got a number when you came in, and as the chairs emptied, you moved up,” Landrieu recalled. “You could talk about your assessment. But if your son was in trouble, you went and sat at Mr. Comiskey’s. Jim would see if he could help. It was a fix-it business. It was parental.

“When you do that over a period of time, when you run for office, you don’t have to worry about those people’s support.”

But the era of assessor as ward boss has been waning for decades, as dynasties one by one fell victim to the city’s shifting demographics and their once-extraordinary powers eroded under outside scrutiny.

The last and perhaps most significant blow to the old system took place Saturday, when Erroll Williams took the oath as the city’s first-ever single assessor.

Williams, who has represented the sprawling 3rd District for a quarter-century, has promised to bring equity to a cozy system long fraught with favoritism and inconsistency borne of the myriad styles of the various assessors.

If Williams is good to his word, many property owners may be in for an adjustment.

“The old system was responsive, but not necessarily responsible, since property valuations were based on whether or not you were on familiar terms with the district assessor,” said University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak. “This resulted in considerable variation in the valuation of properties that were similar in nature. The inequities in assessments translated into discrimination against property owners not personally acquainted with the assessor, in the form of higher property taxes.”

The voter-approved consolidation is supposed to replace the good-old-boy approach with one driven solely by data.

“Some property owners are going to be upset,” Chervenak predicted, “because if the assessor equitably assesses all properties on sound and reasonable criteria, then valuations will increase for those properties that have historically been undervalued.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who advocated the move to a single assessor when he served in the Legislature more than a decade ago, said he won’t mourn the passing of the old system.

“It’s always important in local government to be able to speak to your local elected officials and make sure you know that the government is available and accessible to you,” said Landrieu. “On the other hand, nobody should have to go to any elected official to fix something specifically for them. Hopefully, this system should be set up so that it’s so fair and it’s so transparent that everybody knows what the rules are.”

Setting up office

As workers scurried about last month, readying City Hall’s fourth floor for the transfer of power, they were forced to detour around a 10-foot-long, 4-foot-high oaken desk.

Like many relics scattered around the largely empty space, the 100-year-old desk has a story.

It was loaded onto a freight elevator more than a half-century ago after sitting for years in a French Quarter print shop owned by the Mauberrets, a family that held the 2nd District assessor’s seat from 1904 until Saturday.

Williams is keeping the desk, which will be used as a workspace to eyeball large maps and drawings and perhaps haggle over assessments, the same purpose it has served since it arrived.

The desk isn’t the only vestige of the old era that is sticking around. Also being retained is Claude Mauberret, who took over from his father as 2nd District assessor 16 years ago. Staying as well is Darren Mire, the 1st District assessor since 2002; Mire and Mauberret will serve as Williams’ deputies.

Williams said his old colleagues will provide valuable institutional knowledge. But some critics have questioned the move, saying it reeks of a political deal, and wasn’t what voters had in mind when they dumped the old system. Mauberret, in particular, is a link to the political dynasties that were slow to adapt to rapidly changing technology.

A look inside the hulking metal cabinets that still line the walls reveals large rollers that still provide easy access to the heavy, 3-inch-thick books that, before computers, served as the lone depository for city tax records.

It was a time when real estate transactions were recorded on index cards, updated as property changed hands.

In his book, Liebling marveled that James Comiskey kept his rolls in pencil and carried a large, red eraser in his pocket.

“It’s the end of an era for sure,” Mauberret said recently. “I’m not saying the new way isn’t the right way — it’s the will of the people. But it will be different, and it’s going to take some getting used to.”

While customer service will be one of his chief responsibilities, Mauberret said some property owners may be shocked to learn they will no longer be able to meet one-on-one with their assessor.

“When my constituents needed something done, they felt assured that they were going to get taken care of,” he said. “They knew that when you sat across from me, it was going to be handled. And that went for all the assessors. You don’t get that at many levels of government.”

Mauberret said he sat down with all manner of clients, from the widow handling her taxes for the first time, to young, first-time homebuyers, to poor families that couldn’t afford a computer to check an assessment online.

Staffers will now field most constituent queries, with Williams dealing with the most pressing, big-picture issues.

Gone will be the small-town approach employed by longtime 5th District Assessor Tom Arnold, who often reminded constituents that they were welcome to stop by his Algiers office for a cup of coffee.

“Now, when they come in, it’s not that they won’t get satisfaction,” Mauberret said. “The old way, I think, it just reassured people.”

Reform ‘will require extreme vigilance’

The consolidation of assessors in New Orleans is “only a first step toward reform,” said Janet Howard, president of the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research.

“It doesn’t guarantee the results,” she said. “It will require extreme vigilance.”

Howard said Williams deserves credit for hiring a consulting firm to devise a reorganization plan and retaining outside contractors to develop a baseline assessment for the entire city.

But she said some of his other moves — particularly hiring Mauberret and Mire — send “mixed signals.”

“To really get reform, you have to change the office structure, the technology. You have to hire qualified, reform-oriented personnel and they have to dedicate themselves to getting it right,” Howard said.

“He’s done some good things. But on the other hand, when you have three members of the old guard in key positions, that would tend to work against changing the organization’s character. So, I think we’ll have to have a lot of oversight, a lot of watchdogging here.”

Local brand of politics

About half of American cities elect assessors. But New Orleans may have been the only one to elect different assessors for different neighborhoods. Their districts were based on the boundary lines of the city’s 17 wards, which date to the 1870s.

Because much of today’s city was then swampland, certain districts — particularly Williams’ 3rd District, which includes formerly uninhabited eastern New Orleans — were far bigger than others.

The unique setup helped spawn a local brand of politics in which many New Orleanians knew their assessor better than any other local public official. A prime example was Charles Anthony Degan, who originated a political dynasty that held the 6th District office for 55 years.

During a City Hall ceremony in 1991 commemorating his 100th birthday, Degan recalled how his job often transcended taxes.

“I remember widows and old people coming to me with doctor bills they couldn’t pay, and auto violators dropping papers on my desk,” he said. “A lot of times it cost me money, but that’s part of the job of a politician — it goes with leadership.”

Although the old system had plenty of detractors, Al Pitre, a real estate investor and former president of the Lakeview Civic Association, said his dealings with Mauberret and his staff were always professional.

Pitre said if he felt the valuations on certain properties were too high, he could make his case by submitting evidence of comparable parcels.

“I always felt the door was open,” he said. “It was never awkward. And if I did my homework ahead of time, you could usually get satisfaction. When we showed them the numbers, we wouldn’t always get what we wanted, but they never said they would do nothing.”

Still, Pitre said he supported the single-assessor movement and looks forward to a day when an even-handed approach to assessments leads to lower tax rates.

“I’m most concerned about those properties that have been in the same family for 100 years and are way under-assessed,” he said. “We need a single philosophy. If they bring those (assessments) up, and the city doesn’t get a windfall, the rates citywide should go down. I’m cautiously optimistic that if the system works, that can happen. That’s what people voted for.”

It’s just a job

Before voters headed to the polls in 2006 to consider the consolidation, Loyola University’s renowned political scientist Ed Renwick quipped that New Orleans’ mayor would become the city’s second-most powerful politician after the single assessor’s job was filled.

Williams, a self-professed policy wonk who rarely seeks the spotlight, scoffs at that notion.

“Erroll is going to be Erroll,” he said, “and probably the best way to put it is that I don’t see the job as nothing more than a job. The power is a perceived thing.”

Williams said he likes to think he had more stroke in his old job as the city’s chief administrative officer under his mentor, former Mayor Dutch Morial.

“Will I support people (for election)? Yes, I will,” he said. “But because I support someone, there should not be any fear from anyone that they’ll get some retaliation because of that. I don’t want anybody voting for somebody out of fear of me.”

As evidence of how little he cares for the trappings of power, Williams said he has had his name removed from the list of New Orleans elected officials who have “parole” power for suspects arrested on minor offenses.

“People do bring me those problems, but I don’t see that as my role as tax assessor: trying to ingratiate myself with that particular person. I get it by doing fair assessments.

“Sometimes it’s not well-received by the people who brought me to the dance, but I’m going to be fair in the valuation.”

Jan 2, 2011

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Taxation & Assessments

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