The race for New Orleans' first citywide assessor normally would create lots of interest and fireworks, but that hasn't happened so far — thanks to a mayor's race that seems to have overshadowed everything else on the ballot. Still, there are plenty of reasons for voters to pay close attention to the assessor's race.
Residents voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to combine the city's seven assessors' offices into one. The impetus behind the move was to get rid of what many viewed as more than a century's worth of disparate assessments and unfair property tax burdens. But consolidating seven offices into one doesn't guarantee reform. That will be the job of the new assessor — and that's why this race is so important.
The task of the assessor is to determine the fair market value of all residential, commercial and industrial properties in Orleans Parish for purposes of property taxes. Each of the four candidates running for the office, including two current assessors, underscores the need for a straightforward, easy-to-understand approach. Where the candidates differ is how to accomplish that goal and what qualifies each for the job.
Andrew Gressett, a real estate broker who previously has run for constable, City Council, state Senate and Sixth District assessor, is the only Republican in the contest. The others are all Democrats. Gressett says that if elected, he will reduce all homeowners' assessments by 20 percent on his first day at the job, and in the following days will implement a restructuring of the office according to recommendations spelled out by the Bureau of Governmental Research in its report, In All Fairness: Building a Model Assessment System in New Orleans.
"Homeownership is the backbone of the community, and that's who we need to take care of," Gressett says. "Nobody but me wants to talk about low property taxes."
Claude Mauberret, the incumbent 2nd District assessor, says this election isn't just about reform. "All we're doing with consolidation is putting seven into one," says Mauberret, who has served the 2nd District for the past 15 years. Mauberret adds that property appraisal reform actually began before the vote for consolidation — in 2003, when the assessors secured funds to buy a $1.2 million computer system and software that will help standardize property valuations. In conjunction with the new computer system, Tyler Technologies was hired to collect data — photos, measurements, condition, age, etc. — for each of the city's approximately 165,000 land parcels.
"We get beat up for having assessments out of line," Mauberret says. "Well, we didn't have the tools to work with before. Now we do."
Since 1985, Erroll Williams has been in charge of the sprawling 3rd District, which includes the city's 7th, 8th and 9th wards. He says it was he and fellow assessor Tom Arnold who secured the money for the new computers and software. Williams notes that the final part of the project — converting current property records to the updated system — is on hold until after the election. He adds that by putting additional improvements in place, such as hiring the proper staff and promoting transparency, property values will be more open to public scrutiny.
"Then you begin to educate people that nobody's getting a better deal than anybody else," Williams says.
Though Mauberret and Williams can claim more experience, Janis Lemle, deputy assessor for the 6th District since April 2009, recently became a certified Louisiana assessor. As an attorney previously practicing in the area of asbestos defense, Lemle says she has managed thousands of legal claims, which she says are similar to the work she now does. She wonders why many of the reforms mentioned in the BGR report, which she says is based on best practices from the International Association of Assessing Officers, haven't been implemented previously. Lemle has the support of many reform elements in New Orleans, although Mauberret won the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government.
"Now that a light is being shined on it, [Mauberret and Williams] are talking about how they're going to implement these practices — when they could have done that all along," Lemle says.
In the final days of campaigning, this race could heat up as all candidates attempt to don the mantle of reform and fairness.