Ascension assessor seeks technology to help pinpoint taxable properties

Mert Smiley campaigned for the Ascension Parish Assessor’s Office on allegations that his predecessor wasn’t fulfilling the duties of the office and on promises to voters that he would do more if elected.

He’s spent the better part of the past year — both before and after taking office in January — trying to back up those campaign promises.

Smiley said there were numerous properties in the parish that either weren’t properly assessed or weren’t even on the parish’s tax rolls, and now he’s seeking to raise $400,000 to purchase technology that would help find more of those missing properties.

A recent report from the state Legislative Auditor’s Office seems to back up some of Smiley’s campaign claims. The report says the Louisiana Tax Commission, which oversees parish tax assessors, needs to do a better job of making sure the assessors are following the law.

In Ascension Parish, the report said, 45 percent of residential properties are taxed outside of the 9 percent to 11 percent range of their appraisals, which is required by state law.

Smiley said everything he has done since being elected was to make sure the Assessor’s Office would be in compliance with both the Legislative Auditor’s Office and the Tax Commission.

“If we have the proper information, we’re going to do our job correctly,” Smiley said.

After taking office, Smiley hired additional personnel and instituted a program designed to find every property in the parish and make sure it was properly assessed.

So far, more than 300 residential properties or improvements missing from the tax rolls have been discovered, along with more than 80 commercial properties not on the tax rolls, Smiley and his chief deputy, Justin Champlin, said.

“At the rate we’re going, it’s going to take five to six years to complete this program, and that’s really, really hustling,” Smiley said.

The $400,000 investment, he said, would help the Assessor’s Office accelerate that time frame to only one year. The money would pay for the purchase of mapping software, hire a company to capture high-resolution aerial imagery of the parish, hire another company to use that imagery to sketch all of the rooftops in the parish, and deliver an accurate square-footage count of those buildings.

“It’s technology that would greatly improve our office,” Champlin said.

Smiley committed to spending $25,000 from the Assessor’s Office budget and is seeking other entities to buy into the project as well. So far, the parish’s three municipalities — Gonzales, Donaldsonville and Sorrento — have committed to the program, Smiley said, while he’s had discussions with Sheriff Jeff Wiley and officials with parish government.

“Just about all of the major players are on board,” Smiley said.

The majority of the funding — $235,000 — would come from the Ascension Parish School Board. Superintendent Patrice Pujol said she was supportive of the project, especially since Smiley estimates the School Board would see an increase of about $8.5 million in property tax collections annually.

“Indeed it would be worth our while to make this investment if we were to get this return on that investment,” Pujol said.

At 61.59 mills, the School Board collects about 60 percent of the parish’s property taxes, and, therefore, would be on the hook for a much larger share of the cost for the technology, Champlin said.

Smiley is scheduled to speak before both the School Board and the Ascension Parish Council next month. He said he was hopeful all of the agreements would be in place before the end of August, and the aerial imagery could be taken during January or February, when less foliage presence makes for a more accurate flyover.

“This would help us do our job in a way we couldn’t do it in the past and a way we can’t do it today,” Champlin said.