Newell: Single-assessor system an improvement, but more reforms needed

Lack of transparency regarding mass-appraisal tech keeping public out of the loop

Newell Normand
November 26, 2019 - 10:12 am
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Not many New Orleans residents can say they have not been affected by their property assessments. We now have one assessor as opposed to the seven assessors we had back prior to reforms put in place in 2011. Have there been significant improvements under the new system or not? The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) has a new report out called “Assessing the Assessor” that sheds some light on what’s changed in the last eight years. Newell invited BGR Vice President and Research Director Stephen Stuart and research analyst Jamie Parker into the studio Monday morning to explain the findings of their report.

“I read the report, it’s very well done,” Newell began. “Why don’t you give us an overview here and tell us what brought you to the point where you felt you needed to publish this.”

“In 2011, the voters in New Orleans elected a single assessor to replace the historical seven assessor system we’d had for more than a century,” Stuart responded. “That resulted in inconsistent assessment practices across municipal districts. It also resulted in under-staffing in the office - you were paying for seven CEOs and there was less money to go around for professional staff. The consolidation presented an opportunity to focus public attention on one executive and open the way to fairer practices. What we did at the time of the election was issue a report that made recommendations based on national practices as to how you should structure and shape this office that New Orleans had an opportunity to create. The report we just issued is a follow-up on that research to examine how the assessor made progress toward those recommendations.”

“It’s not like Louisiana is the only place that’s done this,” Newell said. “They may call these elected or appointed individuals by a different title, but it’s all pretty much the same as to what they do… there’s no big secret here. The entry of homes into the stream of commerce, the demographic influences on the valuation of properties - they’re not unique to New Orleans, right?”

“Correct,” Parker answered. “One of the sources that we used in preparing this report are guidelines from the International Association of Assessing Officers, an entity that establishes best practices for appraisal purposes, tax policy, appeals, public relations, mass appraisal technology, so we utilized those recommendations from that organization along with our 2009 report to evaluate the progress the assessor has made to date.”  

“So what were the key findings? Did we gain the efficiencies and everything we were looking for by going from seven assessors to one? Did we reap benefit from that?”

“The assessor has made progress in some areas,” Parker continued. “We are better along in some places than we were under the previous system, but there are still crucial areas where reform is needed. The assessor does not openly share how the office values property. That’s a fundamental function of the office, and there should be openness and transparency around that. For this report, BGR sought to gain a better understanding of how the assessor uses the office’s mass appraisal technology. We asked the assessor for a demonstration to learn more about how that works, and our request was denied. The assessor said that as part of his software agreement and licensing terms for that technology, he was unable to share that with us. But in the course of our research, we found that in other jurisdictions, assessors share that information with their constituents.”

“He sold the right to his calculations to a third party, and now the citizens of New Orleans are not entitled to that information? I’m not sure he can do that,” Newell said. “Have you looked into that?”

“We looked at the contract itself and we were not able to get a clear answer as to why he felt these were not open records,” Stuart said.

“I would be a little cynical here, because having been involved in the tax process as Sheriff when I was the collector - I shake my head, because here we are eight years later, and this is something you could accomplish in year one. The analysis is the analysis - it’s a mathematical formula. It’s not like we’ve not been engaged in this conduct for years and years... I guess what he’s saying is that since 2011 he’s got no interest in letting the public know what the math and science are behind his assessments.”

“It’s a fundamental area for the public to understand,” Stuart said. “Having that access to information and clarity on how he applies the model is very important. That’s something we recommend he pursue as a future reform.”

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below. 

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