New Orleans reformers take aim at property assessments

Group hopes to vote out old system seen as fostering waste, cronyism

March 20, 2006|By SAM QUINONES | SAM QUINONES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- The coming election here will attract national attention as residents vote on who will lead their reconstruction.

But beneath the hullabaloo is an obscure issue that reformers say could be just as big a step in helping the city reinvent itself.

Now is the time, they say, to change the city's antiquated property assessment system, which wastes money and encourages cronyism.

For more than a century, New Orleans has had seven elected property assessors - each with a staff and responsibility for a district - to assess the city's 164,000 parcels. The system is unique in Louisiana and is believed to be like no other in the country.

New Orleans assessor jobs have been handed down from father to son and husband to wife; one seat has been in a family since 1904.

"We have a screwy, curious, historically developed property assessment system," said Shaun Rafferty, an attorney who is leading the nascent assessor-reform movement here. "We've kind of tolerated it. But the hurricane has caused everybody to reanalyze everything."

Since Katrina, a new political activism has replaced the city's long-standing complacency. Many people here see the hurricane as a rare chance to discard an outdated system and begin renovating New Orleans' image as a backwater of corruption and inefficiency that left the city vulnerable before the storm.

The assessor system "didn't have anything to do with the emergency response" to Hurricane Katrina, said Paul Cordes, another reformist attorney. "But the general fragile nature of our city government - this is the bedrock of it."

Riding the wave of reform, a group of lawyers and business people has qualified a slate of assessor candidates - known as the I Quit Ticket - for the April 22 city elections.

The candidates - who all hope to be listed on the ballot with the nickname "IQ" - vow to lobby for legislation allowing voters to approve consolidating their offices into one and resign en masse when that happens. Their resignations would force a special election of a single assessor.

"Everybody felt it was chasing after windmills to take on the assessors," said Bill Aaron, an attorney and I Quit Ticket board member. "Now, with Katrina, all bets are off."

Still the issue shows how slowly change can come here, even after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A bill to allow a vote on consolidating New Orleans' seven assessors into one failed, 8-6, in a state legislative committee last month. Among people opposing it were two legislators with close relatives who are New Orleans assessors.

Several studies have suggested that consolidating the offices under one appointed assessor would lead to sustainable city financing and make assessing more accountable, predictable and efficient. "Every other parish gets by with one," said Janet Howard of the Bureau of Government Research, a think tank. "Even with seven assessors, the job doesn't get done," she said. The offices are understaffed and employ people with insufficient training. The result has been a patchwork of inconsistent assessments for comparable properties.

"The only people who are actually paying the taxes are new home buyers," said Aaron, the former city attorney, referring to those who get their homes reassessed when the sale goes through. "A lot of the wealthy people are not paying the taxes they should be paying, and a lot of the middle-class people are actually bearing the tax burden."

The Times-Picayune newspaper investigated the system in 2004 and found assessments 41 percent below market value. In response, the Louisiana Tax Commission ordered the New Orleans assessors last year to reassess all their residential housing.

Uneven assessments, reformers say, have created taxpayer distrust, lawsuits, a culture of corruption and shaky city finances.

Erroll Williams, the 3rd District assessor, doubts that consolidation would save much money. The New Orleans system is poorly funded, he said, and "you can't save money when you're underfunding it."

Also, Williams said, one assessor "could be corrupting. If you change it to one assessor in New Orleans, he's going to anoint the mayor. He could influence who becomes your council member, your state rep."

But that's exactly what the system now breeds, critics say. Staying in office for years, assessors develop relationships with their constituents, a situation that promotes lowering assessments as political favors.

"There doesn't need to be this personal relationship with your assessor," said Arthur Sterbcow, president of Latter & Blum, the region's largest real estate company, and an I Quit Ticket board member. "That's a thinly veiled way to say, `Come see me. We'll work out a deal.'"

Sam Quinones writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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