Next week, on June 1, District 6 Assessor Janyce D. Degan will retire after 24 years in office (to the day). She will be succeeded by her son, Al Coman, 46, who has worked in her office as a property appraiser for 20 years. Snowfalls are rare in New Orleans, but familial successions in our assessors' offices are de rigueur.
In Coman's case, he's also the only member of Degan's staff who currently lives in the 6th Municipal District Uptown.
The Louisiana Constitution provides that if a vacancy occurs in one of the city's seven assessor offices and there is less than one year remaining in the current term, the remaining six assessors can name an interim replacement. Degan's retirement comes less than a year before the next assessorial term begins; the remaining assessors had no trouble electing Coman as her successor.
Critics of the city's assessors have long railed against the notion of political dynasties in the those offices, but voters seem quite satisfied with the arrangement.
Nonetheless, the assessor's race in District 6 will be a watershed. Coman plans to run, of course. In addition to the usual political traps, Coman and other assessors will face voters in the wake of a bitter fight with the Louisiana Tax Commission, which has ruled that local assessment practices are not fair. The commission has ordered a citywide reassessment. That means voters could receive notices of higher property taxes right before qualifying opens for the next round of elections.
Degan says she supports equalized assessments and has worked hard to make it happen. But, she says, all seven assessors are underfunded and understaffed.
'When I first decided to run for this job, I could see the need for change,' Degan says. 'I wanted to be part of that. All the assessors have been striving for equality and uniformity -- but we lack the money to hire additional, outside people to help. The computer system we have dates from 1977. We don't have anything close to what a modern assessor's office requires. We've been working in the Dark Ages.'
Degan credits Mayor Ray Nagin for breaking the fiscal impasse when he gave the assessors more than $1.2 million to install the first phase of a new computer system. That helped put assessments on the Internet, but city assessors still can't update property transfers on a daily basis -- much less go out immediately and reappraise every parcel in town, as ordered by the tax commission.
'If we get help, we should be able to get the reappraisals done,' Coman says. 'If it's just myself and three other employees in the office, it's going to be tough to reappraise approximately 17,000 pieces of property in the district.'
Imagine how tough it will be on District 3 Assessor Erroll Williams, whose sprawling district (Wards 7, 8 and 9) has more than 80,000 properties to reappraise.
'In my (Uptown) district in particular,' Coman adds, 'you have homes so different right next to each other, so you have to physically go out there and look at every single house. Lots of other areas have subdivisions where the homes all look relatively similar. Not Uptown. You've got mansions on St. Charles Avenue worth millions, and two blocks away you've got homes worth $200,000. That makes it very difficult to keep up.'
How assessors respond to the tax commission's gauntlet will be one of the big political stories of the coming year. The notion of elected assessors equalizing property appraisals citywide might seem far-fetched, but hey, it did snow Christmas Day.