Ascension administration proceeding with plans to hire auditor

Ascension Parish Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. said he plans to proceed with hiring a firm to audit the parish’s salt dome caverns, although the Parish Council will not reconsider participating in paying for the effort.

Smiley and his staff have found that caverns in Ascension Parish’s two salt domes have not been on tax rolls in at least 10 years and want to hire a Texas company other parish assessors are using to assess other unreported caverns in Louisiana.

Adding the caverns to the rolls in Ascension Parish could result in millions in tax revenue to be shared among various public entities.

Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. has advised the council that paying for an expert to determine the caverns’ assessed values would create the appearance of a conflict. Each year the Parish Council sits as the Board of Review to hear appeals of property tax rolls compiled by the assessor.

“I said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be the judge, you shouldn’t pay for one side’s expert,’ ” Parenton said.

Smiley said he is required to assess undiscovered property and plans to proceed, pending a School Board vote Tuesday.

“We’re going forward. The law states that we have to do it, and we are going to do it,” he said.

He said all other jurisdictions have approved funding the effort or, like the School Board, at least expressed support for doing so.

Smiley wants to hire Pritchard and Abbott Inc. and use leftover money local governments had last year for aerial imagery of the parish.

That request died before the Parish Council on Feb. 20.

Council members questioned Smiley and his chief deputy, Justin Champlin, about what the auditors would look at and why Smiley had asked for funding for aerial imagery if he now had dollars left to spend on something else. Smiley has said his office received a grant for the imagery after he asked for funding.

Council Chairman Chris Loar announced the council would reconsider Smiley’s request in March, only to see that change in light of Parenton’s subsequent legal opinion.

Even before the opinion, though, Loar said, he told Smiley that his request would be “far from a slam dunk” because some members who work in industry were concerned about the impact and wondered if the council should wait until litigation over the issue plays out in other parishes.

“We won’t be revisiting it as a council,” Loar said.

Assumption Parish Assessor Wayne “Cat” Blanchard hired Pritchard and Abbott last year after the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole brought to light unreported caverns in the Napoleonville Dome.

Blanchard has pursued the current year’s taxes and the three prior years allowed by law, a combined $15.5 million in taxes from several cavern owners.

The cavern owners are fighting with Assumption Parish in court over the tax bills and whether it was their responsibility to report the caverns to the assessor. The assessor in St. Landry Parish is also fighting in court over cavern assessments.