Board backs Ascension assessor’s plan to shore up tax rolls

The Ascension Parish School Board backed on Tuesday Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr.’s plan using aerial imagery to find buildings and other improvements not on the tax rolls.

The unopposed vote means the School Board agreed to chip in $235,000 for a $400,000 project that stands to bring in at least $8 million in uncollected revenue for the system.

Board Vice President Lorraine Wimberly and member A.J. Nickens voiced concern earlier this month about possible taxpayer anger over the effort but neither opposed the plan Tuesday.

Before the vote, Wimberly read a statement that her concerns had been eased after learning that other parishes are using similar efforts and finding them to be “a good thing for the parish.”

“It has been very helpful in determining all of the homes that are on the tax rolls and the ones that are not on the tax rolls,” she said.

Most of the School Board members and the school administration have been supportive of the plan.

“We have been given a lot of information on this item,” Superintendent Patrice Pujol said before the 8-0 vote. “I don’t know that there is anything else I can add at this point.”

No other board members spoke. Troy Gautreau Sr. and Patricia Russo were absent. Wimberly did not vote as acting chairwoman.

In a later interview, Nickens said that he, as Wimberly, favors pursuing property owners who are not paying their share of taxes. He said he still has personal concerns about the plan but did not oppose it in the face of so much board support.

Also in a later interview, board member John Murphy said he saw the low-cost project as a “no-brainer” that could bring the school system additional funding.

He said he is not concerned about voter anger when the plan is supposed to find people who are not paying the amount of taxes they should be paying.

After the vote, Smiley thanked the board and promised to remain transparent with the board’s share of funding, which will come from 2014 property tax collections.

Later, Smiley said he has received final backing from 12 of the 15 property tax-collecting entities he has asked to participate, including levee boards, cities and the sheriff.

Three remain, the Parish Council, whose Finance Committee has recommended the plan, and two parish drainage boards.

In other action:

The board approved a list of items that includes buying flood insurance for the first time on buildings on 11 school campuses and at the LeBlanc Special Services Center.