Our Views: A watchdog fails to bark

The Louisiana Tax Commission is a watchdog that doesn’t bark, an overseer of property tax administration that does not hold local tax assessors accountable for performance.

The evidence is once again shown in a new report from the Legislative Auditor’s Office. Similar homes in neighborhoods have property tax bills varying by 100 percent or more, the report said.

This is a long-standing problem.

Residential property assessed for tax purposes is obviously a political hot potato. Elected assessors have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is paying a fair share, but there is the inevitable temptation to give in to angry homeowners who don’t want to pay taxes on rising property values.

While it can be a complicated subject, studies have shown widespread inequities, despite a series of scandals over the years after newspapers have looked into the huge gaps in tax assessments.

“We found some homeowners who owed significantly more in property taxes than their neighbors, despite the properties having similar fair market values,” the auditor’s report said.

The tax commissioners, appointed by the governor, are typically tied to the “establishment” of long-serving and politically influential assessors in the parishes.

A happy exception was the commission under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. That board pressed the technical studies that documented the problem of disparate assessments, putting pressure on local assessors. Under Gov. Bobby Jindal, as the auditor’s report indicates, the old political guard has re-established itself at the commission.

Not only does the commission dispute the auditor’s office report, but rather indignantly says that the disparities in assessments are not the commission’s problem.

We agree with the commission that not every assessment is going to be exact: The commission said in a written response to the auditor’s report that a higher-valued home could have a swimming pool or a gourmet kitchen, while a lower-valued home could have termite damage or unrepaired storm problems.

But we cannot help but notice the defensiveness of the commission’s responses, saying the auditor’s report was “performed with a lack of understanding of the appropriate legal and factual background, or, even worse, with a predisposed intent to find fault where none exists.”

We think the taxpayer ought to have a predisposition to wonder whether property tax assessments are fair, given the periodic scandals of which this report is only the latest.

Further, the nature of property taxes means that underassessments are not just a lucky break for the homeowner. Because many property taxes pay for bond issues, the property tax is set to produce an annual payment on the bonds. That means that Homeowner A pays a higher millage rate than he would if Homeowner B — for that matter, homeowners C through Z, into the thousands — is not paying a fair share because of a low assessment.

In 2015, Louisiana voters will elect a new governor. We hope that one of the pledges we hear from the candidates is the appointment of a completely independent board of tax commissioners who will tackle the problem of assessments.