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Editorial: Don't blame Aguillard, fault lies on those who came before

Last Modified: Wednesday, December 05, 2012 5:49 PM

Property taxes are always a controversial topic this time of year for a trio of reasons. The taxes have to be paid by Dec. 31 to avoid interest penalties. The tax bill may be much higher than expected because of an assessment increase. And the holiday season is already expensive for many families.

The office of Wendy Aguillard, Calcasieu Parish tax assessor, knows about the controversy first-hand. Her office has been under fire this year because many property owners have seen their tax bills increase. Some property taxes have more than doubled. And state law is a major part of the problem.

The law says parish tax assessors have the responsibility of assessing property based on a percentage of its market value. Their work is overseen by the Louisiana Tax Commission. It’s mission is “to achieve fair, accurate and uniform ad valorem taxation through effective oversight of assessors...”

The requirements are specific. The percentage of fair market value on property is supposed to be uniform throughout the state where the same class of property is concerned. Unfortunately, some assessors around the state for many years haven’t followed the law.

New Orleans is a case in point. It had seven city assessors, but the Legislature has created one assessor to replace those seven. And here is one of the reasons why the law had to be changed, according to The Times-Picayune:

“The single-assessor system replaced a regime that lasted nearly 130 years in which seven different assessors evaluated what properties were worth, leading to wildly different valuations and inequitable tax burdens,” the newspaper said in August.

The new parish-wide assessor in New Orleans reassessed property in the city in an effort to equalize property assessments. As a result, 40,000 property owners (25 percent of the 160,000 city property owners) saw their taxes go up. The New Orleans City Council decided to keep its millage rates, and that will mean a revenue increase for the city of nearly $10 million.

A similar situation occurred in Calcasieu Parish this year after Aguillard took office. No one has said so, but it appears Aguillard’s job has been especially challenging because her predecessors were not as diligent about ensuring property values were equalized. And now she is trying to fix the problem. She said in November that reassessments are being done by the books and according to state law.

Property has to be reassessed every four years, but that doesn’t always mean property taxes have to go up. State law says taxing bodies have to roll tax millages up or down so that the tax that is collected is equal to the previous year’s taxes. However, government agencies have an alternative. They can keep tax millages at current levels after a public hearing and a two-thirds vote, and that means more revenues for the taxing bodies.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury has rolled its taxes back in order to keep revenues equal to the previous year. Some other parish agencies decided to keep their current millages.

Calcasieu property owners received postcards in July telling them the amount of their assessment. The assessment rolls are opened from Aug. 1 through Sept. 15 for public inspection. That is the time property owners should use to discuss their assessment with the assessor’s office. Waiting for the tax bill to arrive is too late.

Property owners can appeal to the Police Jury that sits as a Board of Review. This year, the jury heard only seven or eight appeals at its Sept. 20 meeting, and they were all commercial property owners. Those who don’t get satisfaction there can appeal to the Louisiana Tax Commission.

The Police Jury is charged with providing space for other parish offices, but it only has direct supervision over the registrar of voters. It has no control over the operations of district judges, the district attorney, the sheriff, tax assessor, clerk of court, coroner or School Board.

If all Louisiana tax assessors had been obeying the law, the tax controversies here and in other parishes could have been avoided. Reassessments would have been done gradually and wouldn’t have created heavy burdens for taxpayers at one time.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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