Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper threw an unexpected - and highly welcomed - new pitch into the presentation of his six-year district turnaround plan Tuesday night when he suggested that the community establish a commission to reassess every property in Lafayette Parish.
"I'm going to show you another slide, and I may get slapped and run out of town. But I'm going to do it anyway," Cooper told a packed Thibodaux Tech cafetorium during a turnaround forum held by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders' Council. "Why don't we arrange for the creation of a blue ribbon committee to begin the process of reassessing property values so that all property is valued at true worth and taxed accordingly? This would probably solve the school system's money issues while bringing fairness to taxpayers.
"If we don't have that fair tax assessment, and the dollars that go along with it, we're losing money," Cooper continued amid widespread applause from the large crowd of stakeholders in attendance. "Some people are paying very small taxes, and some people are paying a lot. All I'm saying is let's help the tax assessor do this. Let's bring fairness to everything. Then you don't have to change tax rates, but everybody's paying their fair share. That's one idea."
Tuesday's forum marked the second public presentation of Cooper's "100% In ... 100% Out" plan to transform the district from the "C" performance score it currently maintains to the "A" district he envisions in six years. It was the first mention, however, of property tax reassessment as one possible solution to school system funding issues.
As The Independent reported in its Feb. 22 cover story, "Downtown Development," Jefferson Street alone is home to numerous commercial buildings with notably low property valuations, amounting to the potential loss of millions in revenue for public schools and other services - libraries, police protection, etc. - funded by property taxes.
Also noted through ongoing coverage from The Independent's "Fair Share" series is Lafayette's loss of millions more every year in tax revenues thanks to a loophole in state law that allows the city's wealthiest landowners to pay agricultural property tax rates for some of the most commercially valuable vacant land in the city.
The state law mainly relies on the honesty of landowners who claim there is some type of agricultural activity on their land in order to pay extremely low property taxes (i.e. one bale of hay). But The Ind's April 2011 "Green Acres" cover story and subsequent "Fair Share" series have identified numerous tracts of land throughout the parish that benefit from the exemption yet have no agricultural activity whatsoever taking place on them.
The collective property tax bill for the 4,085 acres of agricultural land in the city limits was a little less than $9,200 in 2010. According to Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux, had the farming acreage been assessed using a commercial valuation of only $1 per square foot (though some of this very property has sold as high as $18 a square foot), the revenues to the parish would have totaled $1.5 million.