Assessor says he’s keeping pledges

Ascension Parish Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. promised residents Wednesday night that he would work to make sure their property taxes are fair and equitable.

Smiley, who took office in January, held on Wednesday the first of what he plans will be 10 informational community meetings across the parish. Approximately 30 to 40 residents showed up at the Geismar Community Center to hear from Smiley and members of his staff.

Smiley also has meetings planned for Darrow Tuesday and St. Amant on March 20. The Tuesday meeting will be held at the Darrow Community Center, 37117 Martin Luther King St., while the March 20 meeting will be held at St. Amant Recreation Park, 45404 Stringer Bridge Road. Both meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

Assessor’s Office personnel brought homestead exemption and disabled veterans forms along with special assessment applications for residents to fill out, and also took names to compile a database of senior citizens who might need assistance. Smiley and his chief deputy, Justin Champlin, made a presentation about the office’s duties before Smiley took questions and met with residents for one-on-one visits.

“My job is to help the people of the parish,” Smiley said. “I’m not working for the School Board. I’m not working for the sheriff. I’m working for the people of Ascension Parish.”

Smiley won a “very, very tight” race in October 2011, defeating incumbent Renee Mire Michel by 144 votes, or less than 1 percent of the more than 23,000 votes cast in the election. During his campaign, Smiley made a number of accusations about how Mire was running the office and promised that he would discover properties that hadn’t been assessed, make sure every property was assessed fairly and get rid of “good ole boy” politics.

On Wednesday, he and Champlin tried to assure residents they are following through on those promises.

“We want to assess you at the lowest amount allowed by law,” Champlin said. “We want to do what we can legally do to get you the lowest value possible.”

Freddie Marcell, who lives in Baker but owns property on La. 73 in Geismar, said he attended Wednesday’s meeting to make sure he had all of his property assessment information in order. The 74-year-old said he learned he qualified for an assessment freeze, which is available to any property owner 65 years of age or older with a combined adjusted gross income of $69,463 or less.

“I learned because of my age, I can save me some money,” Marcell said.

Phil Louis, a 65-year-old Geismar resident, said he, too, qualifies for savings because he’s a senior citizen. “I just made 65, and I wanted to get my exemption freeze,” Louis said.

Assessments reflect a percentage of a property’s market value and are used to calculate property owners’ ad valorem tax bills. A homeowner’s house and land are assessed at 10 percent of market value minus the homestead exemption, for example.

Smiley explained to the residents that he doesn’t raise their taxes. His job is to accurately assess the value of their property, and the taxes are assessed based upon millages that are passed by voters in the parish. He cautioned them to study any new property tax or millage renewal on a ballot before voting.

“Every new one you pass, that’s gonna be money out of your pocket,” he said.

Smiley said he immediately went to work to improve the department, adding more staff members and modernizing the office’s website. He promised to have an “open-door policy” and asked any resident to come see him if they have questions about their assessments.

“At the end of this year, I’ll be able to honestly say that the Ascension Parish Assessor’s Office is the best in the state,” Smiley said.