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PAR Says Consolidate New Orleans Assessors

Consolidation of New Orleans’ seven assessors into a single office ranks high among the meaningful reforms that the legislature must pass this session. New Orleans stands alone in having seven constitutionally-protected assessors, while all other parishes operate with only one. Consolidation of these offices is a good first step toward achieving more uniform assessments, streamlining government and enhancing transparency and accountability. The House Ways and Means Committee will consider HB642 next Monday.

The current system of multiple assessors has resulted in wide variations in policy and practice. The city’s antiquated arrangement has resulted in well-documented variations in assessments both pre- and post-Katrina. Research has shown that property assessments in New Orleans are inequitable and haphazard. Home values often radically differ based merely on arbitrarily determined district lines.

In a 2004 survey of 1,674 property sales in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune found that properties were under-assessed by an average of 70 percent, likely resulting in loss of at least $2.3 million to city agencies. Despite parish-wide reassessment following the storms, disparities still exist. The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a public policy research organization, examined post-Katrina assessments on property improvements in New Orleans. BGR found that some assessors made substantial reductions in assessments to undamaged properties. Three assessors reduced assessments between 15 percent and 50 percent on improvements, while other assessors made no changes.

Inequitable assessments increase the tax burden on some property owners and reduce funding for critical services, such as schools, police and fire protection. With the city facing staggering debt while struggling to maintain its population and attract business, this reform is more urgent than ever.

The fiscal note prepared by the Legislative Auditor’s Office conservatively estimates that roughly $574,000 would be saved simply by eliminating six assessors’ salaries and expense accounts. Additional savings likely would occur from cutting expenses related to duplicate staff positions, health care and retirement benefits. According to the Legislative Auditor’s summary of the 2004 financial statements, the expenses for the seven assessors and the Board of Assessors totaled $3,836,509. Another benefit of consolidation is that taxpayers who own multiple properties in Orleans Parish no longer would waste time and money transacting business with several assessors.

Establishing a single assessor would enhance transparency in government, making public information more readily available to citizens interested in examining assessments. Instead of analyzing different sets of data and deciphering the policies and processes of seven separate offices, a citizen would only deal with one assessor.

Ideally the new, single assessor’s office would be appointed rather than elected. Appointment would allow the assessor to focus purely on ministerial tasks and eliminate political or personal considerations in assessment decisions. However, until the appointment of all assessors in the state can become a political reality, a single elected assessor is the next-best option for New Orleans.

To allow current assessors’ terms to expire, the bill does not consolidate the offices until 2010. The proposal must be approved by voters statewide and in New Orleans, because a constitutional amendment is necessary for this change. On Monday, HB 642 will face the House Ways and Means Committee, which killed assessor consolidation by a vote of 8-5 during the last special session. The parochialism exhibited by members was particularly egregious with two committee members voting to protect relatives who are assessors.

The proven inefficiency and unfairness resulting from having seven assessors in New Orleans should be sufficient reason for consolidating into a single office. With the national spotlight on Louisiana, there is additional motivation to finally implement this reform to improve the image of the state. The legislature should not stand in the way of letting voters decide this important issue.

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