Officials with the Louisiana Tax Commission told legislators Thursday that they are doing everything they can to ensure property taxes are assessed fairly across the state despite a report that concluded otherwise.
State Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, told the commission to make improvements. “The constitution doesn’t say you’ll do everything you can. It says you’ll do it,” Never said.
The commission appeared before the Legislative Audit Advisory Council in response to a critical report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office. The auditor’s office contends the tax commission is not policing parish assessors stringently enough to ensure neighbors pay comparable property taxes for similar homes.
The auditor cited examples of property tax bills on similar homes in the same neighborhoods varying by 100 percent or more. The auditor also found that the commission did not force assessors to make corrections when its own survey identified problems with assessments, such as assessments on 55 percent of homes in East Baton Rouge Parish and 50 percent of homes in Orleans Parish missing the legal target of 10 percent of fair market value.
The result, according to the auditor, is that one homeowner in New Orleans’ Garden District paid roughly $8,500 in property taxes, while a neighbor with a similar size home paid less than $2,500 in property taxes.
The tax commission rejected four of the auditor’s five recommendations for improvements.
Gina Brown, the audit’s manager, told legislators Thursday that the commission claimed a swimming pool or a gourmet kitchen might be the reason for variances in assessments. However, she said, the commission never checked to see if that truly was the case.
The commission operates with a staff of 36 employees and a $3.8 million budget. The office oversees parish assessors, who are supposed to ensure property owners pay 10 percent of their property’s fair market value in taxes.
Nicole Edmonson, director of performance audit services for the auditor’s office, said the commission needs to use a risk-based approach that highlights egregious assessments. Doing that, she said, should identify assessors or parishes that are consistently problematic.
Charles Abels, the tax commission’s administrator, said he will work with the suggestions. “We’re going to do everything we can with the manpower we have,” Abels told legislators.
Abels said the commission’s disagreement with the audit report centers on an understanding of mass appraisals. He said assessors look at hundreds of thousands of parcels.
“I’m not defending them,” Abels said. “It’s not a perfect system, but it’s pretty close.”
Abels said the commission does not want anyone to pay more in taxes than they should. He said property owners can look at their neighbors’ tax bills on the commission’s website.
Members of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council flipped through the audit report and pressed Abels for answers on its findings. State Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, and state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said there were parishes where assessments appeared to remain flat.
Abels said that kind of problem should pop up in the commission’s ratio study on property values, which is used to ensure assessments are on target. He said that the commission is doing everything it can.
“Evidently it’s not enough because we’ve got problems. Someone’s not doing their job,” Nevers said.
Walsworth complained that the commission’s chairman, Pete Peters, skipped Thursday’s meeting. Walsworth said Peters signs the paperwork and is Abels’ boss.
The Legislative Audit Advisory Council plans to meet again on the issue, this time with Peters in the audience.