Lafayette assessor checking homestead exemption claims

The Lafayette Parish Assessor’s Office is eyeing a new program to ferret out property owners improperly claiming homestead exemption — a tax break that shaves $75,000 of the taxable value of residential property.

Upward of $1 million in annual property tax revenue could be at stake for City-Parish Government, the School Board and other groups that are funded in part by property taxes, Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux said.

Homestead exemption is one of the largest and most common tax breaks available for residential property, but homeowners in Louisiana are permitted to claim the $75,000 only for property where they live.

Comeaux said that based on what’s been found elsewhere, anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent of the parish’s 54,400 claims for homestead exemption might not be valid.

“Let’s clear it up because the parish needs certain revenue,” said Michael Sarver, owner of Mandeville-based Assessure Systems, which is hoping to secure the contract in Lafayette Parish to track down the improper exemptions on the books.

Comeaux said he knows of no other parish with a dedicated program to search out improper claims for exemption, and Sarver said Lafayette Parish would be his company’s first such project in the state.

“Lafayette would be our pilot program to do this,” Sarver said.

Sarver said his company has developed software that sifts through public records and a wide range of financial and other data purchased from third parties to try to answer the question of whether someone actually lives in a home where homestead exemption is claimed.

“We all leave digital fingerprints as to where we are operating every day,” Sarver said.

Once a questionable exemption is found, the information is relayed to the assessor’s office, which would make the final call.

Sarver’s company would get a portion of any new tax revenue collected as a result.

In some cases, Sarver said, a property owner might be intentionally making a false claim homestead exemption in an effort to save taxes on a rental house or vacation home.

In others, he said, it could be a clerical error or an old family home where someone lived at one time and no one thought to change the exemption after family members began renting the house or using it for a business.

Comeaux said the possibility of improper exemption claims has long been known, but his office does not have the resources to verify every exemption.

“The problem is we don’t have access to all the databases they would,” Comeaux said of Assessure.

The proposed contract with Assessure must be approved by all the taxing bodies in the parish that receive property tax, because those taxing bodies would have to give up claim to a portion of the recovered tax money in order to pay the private contract.

The agreement is scheduled to be introduced at Tuesday’s meeting of the Lafayette City-Parish Council and is up for a final council vote May 7.

Comeaux said the program to validate homestead exemption claims will go into effect this year if all the details and agreements can be worked out.