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Assessing the Situation 

There's no reason why New Orleans should not have the same number of assessors as every other Louisiana parish: one.

Reform advocates for years have been trying to promote the idea of combining New Orleans' seven assessors into one office, to no avail. Every time a constitutional amendment to combine the offices was introduced, it was killed in committee. It took an extraordinary appearance last week by Gov. Kathleen Blanco before the House Ways and Means Committee to finally dislodge a single-assessor amendment from that graveyard of reform. The fact that the governor herself had to make the case for reform just goes to show how entrenched the city's archaic system of having multiple assessors really is. And even then, she was treated to some of the same rancor that reformers have endured for years.

But now a pair of proposals, one by state Rep. Austin Badon and another by Sen. Ann Duplessis, is on the House floor. Duplessis' measure is further along, and it could go to the voters if it garners the required two-thirds vote in the House. Of course, nothing in the Legislature is ever as easy as it sounds. Opponents of reform are not going to give up easily. They already have amended Badon's bill in committee to delay the statewide referendum on consolidation from Sept. 30 of this year until the congressional elections in October 2008, and it's likely they will try to tack the same change onto Duplessis' proposal on the House floor. We urge lawmakers not to foist this ruse on the public. People aren't nearly as dumb as some politicians think they are, and nothing gets voters more riled than politicians playing political games with reforms whose time has come.

"Such a move is an attempt to block reform and give assessors in Orleans Parish two more years to campaign for the status quo," says the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL), a non-partisan think tank that monitors state government. "That's not fair to voters." CABL also notes that there already will be two important constitutional amendments on the Sept. 30 ballot -- one proposing levee board consolidation and the other dealing with expropriation of property. "Both are critical issues involving the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans," CABL states. "There is absolutely no logical reason that assessor consolidation should not join those issues on the ballot. They should be voted on together to allow citizens the opportunity to decide matters that are at the heart of the recovery of the city." We couldn't agree more.

Moreover, having an election date this year will not shorten the term of any current New Orleans assessor. Even opponents of the seven-assessor system agree that the recently elected assessors should have the opportunity to complete their current terms in office. During that time, if voters approve the change, the incumbent assessors could -- and should -- work toward a smooth transition from the current fragmented system to a single office with uniform assessment practices. CABL calls the effort to delay the referendum "a transparent tactic being used by the opponents of reform to take this issue out of the spotlight and hope voters will forget about it." No doubt. This issue is on the front burner right now, and opponents of reform know it. The time to change the system has come, and voters should not have to wait another two years to speak their minds on this important issue. Moreover, local legislators who vote to postpone the referendum will have to face voters themselves in 2007. Woe to any who think reform-minded citizens will forget who stood tall for reform and who fell for the same old political ploys.

The reasons for combining the seven offices into one are compelling. For starters, there's no reason why New Orleans should not have the same number of assessors as every other Louisiana parish: one. Consolidation thus ranks at the top of meaningful reforms that lawmakers are considering this year. If achieved, it will mark a giant leap forward in the drive for more uniform assessments, streamlining government and enhancing transparency and accountability. "The current system of multiple assessors has resulted in wide variations in policy and practice," says the Public Affairs Research Council, another governmental watchdog. "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."

Disparate assessments increase the tax burden on some property owners unfairly and reduce needed funding for critical public services such as schools, police and fire protection, libraries and recreation -- to name just a few. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans faces massive debt and equally daunting shortfalls in operating revenues. As the city struggles to rebuild and attract new and returning businesses, this reform is more important than ever.

Consolidating the New Orleans assessors' offices is not a new idea. Gambit Weekly has long advocated one assessor for New Orleans. The current system of seven assessors virtually guarantees that assessments will not be uniform -- or equitable -- from one municipal district to another. We urge House members to pass Sen. Duplessis' bill as written, and we call on all citizens to contact representatives at (225) 342-6945 (http://house.louisiana.gov/) and speak out in favor of this crucial reform.

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