Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Struggling with the Assessor Amendment

Are we pushing too far, too fast in the name of an abstract reform? On one level, I understand that this is the greatest opportunity New Orleans and the state have had at a turn around in my lifetime, and possibly the last. At the same time, we need to be careful that reform doesn't turn into ruin, and the proposal to reform the property assessment system is fraught with that danger.

I'll be frank: my house is probably underassessed, and for the moment that is a blessing. Entergy bills have skyrocketed and my insurance costs excluding flood are triple those I paid elsewhere. I have no idea how I will swing auto insurance when my 14-year old starts clamoring for her learner's permit, given the ruinous Louisiana rates. I have the high cost of a dry home purchased after the Flood, while most of my neighbors struggle with unreimbursed repair costs.

The hidden danger in voting for consolidation of New Orleans' seven assessors into one is that a city-wide reassessment is liable to send our tax bills up--way up--at a time when none of us can really afford it. Property values are at an all time high in the dry portions of town, and with all of the other costs of living here, a significant spike in tax bills might be just the thing to kill the recovery.

There's a simple solution: property tax rates in dollars should be capped as part of a city-wide reassessment, and millages adjusted down after that assessment so there is no net increase in revenue. That might get tricky across a half-dozen taxing agencies, but the end ought to be a net wash overall.

After the assessments and millages are equalized, then it would be time for the city's leadership--and perhaps even the mayor,--o step forward and say: this is what we need to put the city's finances in order and to have a successful recovery. A year from now, given a clear picture of what I am voting for, I would be ready to pull the lever in favor of the millage increases.

Our rush into a city-wide reassessment may have the exact opposite effect from that intended by the whole alphabet soup of well-meaning good government groups. Given the current make up of our city government, the resultant hike in taxes would push a lot of money into a city government that is still tainted by corruption. (Yeah, get over it Cynthia. The both of ya.)

Mayor No-C-'Em Ray Nagin promised transparency in government. A lot of commentators on-line and on paper have struggled with reconciling that promise with the near invisibility of the mayor and his cabal of former opponents. They vanish into the Secret Recovery Bunker and pop up every now and then with winning ideas like taking out payday loans to run city ggovernment doubling sanitation costs for a city half the size, or the plan to make New Orleans over into a Big Box Boulevard at the expense of local businesses. Great ideas both, if you've got a cut of the action, but pretty bone headed from just about any other perspective.

I wonder what precisely No-C-'Em had in mind when he promised transparency? What we've gotten is the I think it is the gossamer of a ghost. We see him about as frequently as a wandering spirit lately, and to about the same effect: when he does appear, he tends to say or do things that scare the hell out of us. Its an appropriate analogy, as the recent dealings at City Hall reek of the corruption of the recently deceased.

The idea of turning Nagin loose with a large pile of freshly collected cash scares the hell out of me. And I'm afraid that's exactly what a city wide reassessment without caps on new taxes, and more new blood in city hall, is going to mean.

Feel free to try and convince me otherwise, but as long as the amendment's backers are already talking Plan B (never a good idea this close to your election, unless you think you might lose), I am strongly leaning toward pulling the No lever (ok, pushing the No button) in November.

Being underassessed is indeed a blessing... for some. Those who have more accurate assessments get to underwrite those with ridiculously low assessments.

If the amendment passes, the assessor consolidation in Orleans occurs in 2010.
Let me just say it is never to early to embrace a good idea.

The consolidation of the assessors is a good idea.

There is no reason to believe that one assessor will be any better at assessing than seven, but at least everyone will be playing by the same rules.
You should know we can't just hold our collective breath until we get someone in charge who is universally trusted before we take a leap that should have been taken generations ago. That "universally trusted" person doesn't exist in today's political climate....or rather, the person exists, but cannot be elected.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I fully support the amendment to eliminate 6 assessors.

But we have to remember that it's not the Assessors' fault if our taxes are high. The tax RATE is set by the City Council. And the Council has freedom to raise or lower our taxes by any amount annually at will.

Many cities require tax measures to go to a vote of the people, and many also have a cap on how much the tax rate can be raised per year except by popular vote. Perhaps that's the next reform we need to pursue.


I've been bothered by the transistion since the issue's come up. I've never seen millages in N.O. compared to other cities, but it stands to reason that they're artificially high to compensate for the underassessments. I imagine that most of the property tax horror stories that we've heard--the landlord who wrote about his rents going up because of the $8,000. jump in his tax bill, Harry Anderson's $17,000. jump, etc. have more to do with reassessments than the council's recent increase. Honest assessments with the current millages could have everybody telling those horror stories.

I'd almost say that the best thing we could hope for would be for New Orleans voters to approve the amendment, but voters in the rest of the state to reject it. Almost. That would allow C. Ray to avoid responsibility for another three years and the reform needs to be made eventually, I'd rather it under a city council that wasn't intimidated by an education Phd.
There are far too many components in need of adjustment in our broken down antiquated tax system for just one constitutional amendment to resolve.

Fact is this amendment addresses just one issue. There are other issues including one sacred cow that must be addressed if we are to move toward a progressive lifestyle in La. and keep small businesses such as Anderson's in New Orleans or for that matter, in Louisiana.

This will require courage.

This will require trust.

The courage part is easy.
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