As a kid, Erroll Williams knew every good fishing hole on Bayou St. John. That was years before Bancroft Drive brought pricey homes to the eastern banks of the bayou — and decades before Williams took office as New Orleans' first elected citywide assessor.
"Dutch Morial's house (on Harrison Avenue across from Park Island) was the best fishing spot on the bayou before they built his house there," Williams recalls, sitting amid the clutter of his still-very-much-under-renovation office in City Hall. "The reason why is they had clamshells in the soil there, down on the bottom, and the bass tend to spawn there. There was no Harrison Avenue Bridge in those days."
Williams fished the bayou almost every day as a 14-year-old growing up on Milton Street in the nearby St. Bernard Housing Project. He now owns a lot of his own on the bayou adjacent to Morial's old home; he plans to build a home there.
Between then and now, Williams came to know Morial and his home on the bayou quite well. After Morial was elected the city's first African-American mayor in 1977, Williams landed a job as the new mayor's director of finance, which put him in charge of tax collections. A CPA who worked in New York after graduating from Dillard University, Williams had never met Morial before submitting his résumé to the mayor-elect in early 1978.
"I didn't even vote for him," the new assessor recalls of his early political mentor, "because I didn't live here during his election. I lived out of a suitcase then."
Morial obviously saw a lot of potential in Williams. After running the Finance Department for six years, Williams was promoted to Chief Administrative Officer, the highest-ranking post in any mayoral administration and generally the mayor's right-hand person. At a minimum, Williams' no-nonsense, straightforward (many would say "accountant-like") approach to his job personified one of Morial's favorite admonitions: You can't hoot and howl with the owls all night if you want to soar with the eagles in the morning.
Nobody ever accused Williams of hooting with the owls.
"Erroll is not a flashy guy and has never been," says Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, who worked under Morial with Williams in the 1980s and managed his first campaign for Third District assessor in 1985. "Back in the day, a lot of guys tried to dress flashy. Not Erroll. He was always a coat-and-tie guy. He didn't even wear colored or striped shirts. He was a white-shirt-and-tie guy. He never had to think about what he was putting on in the morning."
Bagneris says Williams never changed. "That regimen probably accounts for his success. He brings that same discipline to his work. Whatever project he's working on, he's going to put in all the time that's required to meet that task and always be focused on that task. He doesn't get into multitasking. He's going to deal with the task at hand and then move to the next one, then deal with that task and move to the next one."
Another former colleague from the Morial years, former French Market Corp. director Steve Hand, has a similar take on Williams' muted style.
"Erroll is and always was a technocrat," says Hand, adding with a laugh, "When he met people in his first campaign, he would explain his theory of assessments. He was always fascinated by accounting and appraisals and real estate — the nuts and bolts of it all — and he hasn't changed a bit. He genuinely enjoys being the assessor, and he works tirelessly at it."
For his part, Williams credits Morial with being "a good teacher."
"He demanded a lot out of you," Williams recalls, "but he also taught you how to survive."
And survive he has. For more than a quarter-century, Williams was virtually unchallenged as the assessor for the 7th, 8th and 9th Wards, which contain nearly half the city's residential parcels and two-thirds of its land mass.
At his Jan. 1 swearing-in ceremony on the Dillard campus, Williams harkened back to his days with Morial. "I saw a lot of folks who worked with me from my days in Dutch's administration," he said later. "I told them that a lot of times people come to the dance and they bring people to the dance initially. Four years later, it's tough to have those same people at the dance with you. I learned that from Dutch.
"As I looked at the folks at my swearing-in, a lot of the people who showed up were the ones who brought me to the dance many years ago. The judge who swore me in (Bagneris) was my first campaign manager in 1985. His wife was my assistant campaign manager. [Former state Rep.] Rosalind Peychaud was one of the people who helped me get here. Over time, we all became good friends — but they know what to expect out of me."
When asked what Williams meant by that last remark, Bagneris laughs and says, "He wouldn't give his mother a break (on her assessment). I got my assessment, and I got no breaks. ... It doesn't matter how far back we go or any of that stuff. Friendships won't factor into assessments. Whatever the formula says your assessment should be, that's what it's going to be."
Notwithstanding Williams' reputation as a straight shooter, he raised hackles among reformers recently when he tapped former Assessors Claude Mauberret and Darren Mire as his top aides. Mauberret, whose family had held the Second District assessor's job since 1904, ran against Williams and made the runoff against him, then withdrew — sparing Williams a costly runoff. Mire talked about running for the job but deferred to Williams. Their hires reek of politics, say critics. Williams defends his decision.
"They both have experience, they want to work, and they understand where I'm taking this assessor's office," he says. "Some people may have dislikes for either of them; some of those same people have dislikes for me. I understand that, but I still have a tough job ahead of me, and I would much prefer to have experienced people who understand the task. ...
"I believe that my decision to keep Darren and put him over the valuation section — residential and commercial appraisals and business and personal property returns — is because he's best suited to do that. And Claude over assessor services — homestead exemption processing, customer service, transfer of real estate, assessment changes, industrial exemptions — he's familiar with those."
Critics of the hires say voters opted for a clean sweep in 2006 when they chose to combine the seven former assessors' offices into one. Then again, those same voters promoted Williams to the single-assessor spot in 2010 knowing full well that he had been part of the Old Guard for 25 years. In fact, he led the charge against combining the assessors' offices in the 2006 referendum, dipping into his own campaign fund to pay for TV ads against the popular reform.
If voters sent a mixed message over the course of those two elections, Williams says he knows what he has to do going forward.
"I'm just trying to build a staff that can carry the mission out — to provide good, courteous, professional service to the citizens that we serve," he says. "I don't care what anybody thinks; I gotta carry this load. In four years, I have to be accountable if I plan to run for this office again. If I don't fix the problems that everybody perceives and do a better job of educating everybody out there, then I won't earn the right to serve the citizens for another four years."
In the course of a conversation with Williams about where he wants to take the office, it becomes clear that the key words in his last comment are "educating everybody out there." Just as he did when first running for assessor in 1985, he seems intent on discussing his theory of assessments. He does it with the same passion that he brings to fishing and hunting — two of his favorite diversions.
"I'm not a reformer," he begins. "I like change, and some people perceive change as reform, but making changes does not make me a 'reformer.' The challenge for me is making it work the way it's supposed to work."
The way it's supposed to work, says Williams, is rooted in a concept he calls "mass-appraisal theory," which stands in stark contrast to "single-appraisal theory."
Don't let your eyes glaze over just yet. There's a lot of money at stake here — your money, if you're a property owner.
"A single-appraisal guy comes into your house and measures each room," explains Williams. "He comes up with a square footage of living area, much like a listing agent for a real estate firm, and then he'll go and try to find comparable properties — not necessarily from the same neighborhood — from whatever his database is. He arrives at a sales price per square foot for each of the three or four comparables and comes up with a recommended value ... unless it's new construction.
"Mass appraisal takes all the properties in a well-defined geographic region, comes up with the average price paid for properties of comparable size and age and condition, and it plots that value to properties based on their size. Under that theory, everybody with the same size house in a given area gets the same assessment, if they are also the same age and in the same condition."
Williams says Louisiana law requires assessors to use the mass-appraisal method, particularly on residences, because the single-appraisal method is too time-consuming. The aim, he says, is to come up with a reasonable approximation of a property's "fair market value" at a given point in time. That point in time for New Orleans property owners is now Jan. 1, 2011 — the benchmark date for the next round of mandatory statewide assessments, which must be done at least once every four years.
A spokesman for the Louisiana Tax Commission (LTA), which oversees all assessors and their rolls, confirms Williams' take on the law and methodology of assessments. "All assessors use the mass-appraisal approach because they have so many properties to assess," says LTA Administrator Charles Abel. "That's true not just in Louisiana, but everywhere in the United States. All 50 states use that appraisal theory. ... The International Association of Assessing Officers provides the standards and techniques that we all use."
Abel and Williams agree that the mass-appraisal method works best for residential properties, whereas commercial properties — such as hotels — often require individual appraisals. Even then, both men say, several factors influence an assessed value, such as cost, income, sales price, obsolescence and depreciation.
"You don't see a lot of sales on commercial properties," says Abel. "And even then the sales price often includes things like personal property, which is not part of the general property assessment process. We typically use the income approach in assessing commercial properties."
Abel adds that assessing property in New Orleans is "very difficult" because property and land values can vary significantly within a few blocks. "He's got a very tough job to do," Abel says of Williams and this year's citywide reassessment, "but he's very capable."
Looking ahead to that task, and to property owners' reactions to the forthcoming new assessments, Williams pulls no punches. "I have to be candid. Some [former New Orleans] assessors only raised assessments a certain percentage each year, not necessarily following the philosophy of mass appraisal," Williams says. "Our challenge is to figure out what the fair market value is."
In some parts of town, property owners are in for a surprise — some even predict a form of sticker shock — when they get their new assessments from their new assessor. Williams doesn't blink at the prospect of what's to come.
"What will happen is not necessarily sticker shock, but those people whose homes are underassessed, once we complete re-valuation, their homes will be closer to what their fair market value is."
Translation: Your property taxes will go up.
Williams adds that "fair market value" is a moving target. "This is not an absolute science," he says. "Some people talk about 'accurate assessments' — I don't believe there is such an animal. I do believe there is such a thing as a fair assessment, however."
Asked what he expects to find when he starts re-assessing properties citywide, Williams predicts "a lot of hidden treasures — instances where people had special deals that had been unnoticed over the years. Some snakes are gonna bite me, too. There may be some exemptions out there that legitimately shouldn't be there. We'll try to discover them by taking everything significant that's off the tax rolls and accounting for everything, making sure we've got the documentation to support those exemptions."
That's also an aim of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who appointed a special committee to study the tax rolls to determine if all taxable properties are on them — and if others should potentially be on them. Landrieu cites estimates that nearly two-thirds of the parcels in town are not taxed for one reason or another.
One exemption that could come under scrutiny is that for nonprofit and faith-based entities that own revenue-producing properties which are not taxed.
On that one, Williams takes a pass.
"That's one for the Legislature to decide," he says, noting that he has enough on his plate trying to combine seven offices into one — and reassessing all property citywide at the same time.
Putting numbers to the task, Williams' old Third District had roughly 78,000 of the city's approximately 160,000 parcels. That means he has to come up with brand-new assessments for twice as many parcels as he has assessed for the past 26 years — all in one year.
Put another way, he doesn't expect to do much if any fishing between now and the end of the year.