N.O. assessor hopes to ease long lines

Assessor Erroll Williams keeps two photographs around his office on the fourth floor of City Hall. One, from 1963, shows the crowd of property owners who showed up that year to challenge their tax assessments. Another, from 2012, show’s pretty much the same scene, only the crew cuts and the suit and ties have gone out of fashion.

It seems just possible, though, that this New Orleans tradition, the annual two-week crunch to plead a case for a smaller property tax bill, could disappear — or at least ease up some.

For starters, Williams has given residents a full month to challenge assessments this year, a change that took an act of the state Legislature. But perhaps more significantly, property owners for the first time will be able to file an appeal online rather than trek down to City Hall in person, a response to loud complaints in years past from residents used to being able to do almost everything else from their laptops.

“You can sit at home and watch your soaps and file your appeal at the same time,” said Williams, who claims to run the first assessor’s office in the state with electronic appeals.

Still, there’s some reason to think that New Orleans hasn’t seen the end of long lines on the fourth floor of City Hall. The new online system, which will debut Monday after testing this week, requires that residents have access to a scanner in order to send in the paperwork to back up claims. It’s likely not everyone who wants to appeal will have the necessary equipment.

And even with 30 days to file an appeal rather than two weeks, Williams expects many property owners to wait for the last minute, meaning that the same bottleneck could still materialize.

The appeals period opened Monday morning and the waiting room outside of the Assessor’s Office was empty. “That’s just human nature,” Williams said.

Williams has been working through one section of the city each year rather than re-evaluating the entire parish every four years as is the practice of most assessors.

On Monday, Williams said he has hit more than 90 percent of the city since taking office in 2011. This year he sent out about 25,000 notices that property values have either jumped or fallen, down from about 60,000 last year. He attributed the drop to the fact that he is closing in on completing the whole city.

This year’s changes were concentrated in Algiers and Mid-City, as well as areas of Uptown and Lakeview.

Along with City Hall, the Assessor’s Office has opened two other locations where residents can challenge their assessments in person, one at the Algiers Courthouse on Morgan Street and the other at the Lakeview Christian Center on Fleur de Lis Drive, although the latter won’t be open until Monday. All locations will be open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.