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PAR Says for Tax Equity, Appoint Assessors

It came as no surprise that the legislative auditor’s recently released audit of tax assessment practices found that assessors are doing a poor job of valuing property. This is only the latest in a long history of studies that have come to the same conclusion.

While tax assessment equity has improved since PAR’s first look at the problem in 1955, much obviously remains to be done. The current legislative auditor’s report, which examined the performance of 12 parish assessors’ offices, indicates that the state supervision has been generally ineffective and many local assessors have been remiss in keeping assessments updated. The report recommends improved guidance and supervision for assessors but does not tackle the politically ticklish problem of the assessor’s constitutionally-protected elected status.

The election process itself tends to create political pressures on the office inconsistent with the need for expert professionalism. Voters do not want to hear an assessor candidate promising to keep assessments current, particularly if they believe they may be underassessed. Thus, assessor candidates tend to talk about issues unrelated to the assessor’s job such as the homestead exemption.

Once in office, the assessor often assumes the role of protecting the homeowner from property taxes. The assessor is frequently a vocal lobbyist on property tax issues but may also curry voter favor by granting low assessments or inappropriate homestead exemptions. The legislative auditor cited one assessor’s admission to underassessing in order to keep property taxes low.

Local government bodies depend on property tax revenues for much or all of their support. Taxes approved by the voters should be collected fairly and uniformly according to law. This process can be undermined by improper assessment practices. Property assessment is a highly technical process requiring specialized knowledge and experience. There is no reason or justification for injecting politics and the attendant potential for favoritism and voter pandering into the process.

Louisiana has many capable assessors who attempt to do a professional job within a highly political environment. Too often, however, assessors are better politicians than they are technicians. The result can be inequitable taxes and inadequate support for local services. An assessor who is doing the job properly does not make policy, does not set tax rates and does not involve political or personal considerations in assessment decisions. Election is an inappropriate way to fill this purely ministerial position.

For the past half-century PAR has supported the International Association of Assessing Officers’ first principle for promoting effective and equitable assessment: “Assessors should be appointed from trained and experienced candidates to insure that scientific procedures and modern machine methods are used.’ It is time to end the election of Louisiana’s tax assessors. They should be appointed based only on their expertise and experience as professional property appraisers.

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