Walter Pierce

RE: Taxed Enough Already?

by Walter Pierce

Hardly, but if Assessor Conrad Comeaux ever catches up, parish coffers could be rolling in dough.

Hardly, but if Assessor Conrad Comeaux ever catches up, parish coffers could be rolling in dough. By Walter Pierce

Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

How much in property taxes does Lafayette Parish leave on the proverbial table due to uneven and lagging assessments? That's a tough question to answer with any precision, but as this week's cover story suggests, it's likely in the millions of dollars - millions for our schools, our roads and bridges, our police officers and firefighters.
Technological upgrades should help our assessor catch up - closing the ag loophole would help too, but let's not hold our breath waiting for state lawmakers to find the political will to do so.

I had my own brush with the business end of "government revenue" about a decade ago when my own property tax bill went up 900 percent. It wasn't because Big Gov was squeezing me; turns out my wife and I were paying an absurdly low rate - we just didn't know it.

When we bought our home in Oaklawn - a leafy neighborhood of cottages near the Saint Street area - in 1999 with a kindergartner and preschooler in tow, our property tax bill for both the city and parish was about $100. We were a young family that could barely swing the mortgage - our budget was tight and everything was line-itemed into our decision to buy a house in the old heart of the city near downtown and the university. It's a great place to live, and we remain in the same house today.

We didn't know when we closed on the place that our house and presumably every other home on our street hadn't been reassessed since the 1960s. When the assessor's office finally got around to placing a "fair market value" on our house a year after we moved in, our property tax bill skyrocketed to close to $1,000. A gnashing of teeth ensued.

There wasn't enough in escrow to cover the increase, so after the gnashing came the gritting, and paying what for us at the time was a sizeable out-of-pocket expense, forgoing movies, restaurants and the hours upon hours I used to spend playing video poker in sleazy truckstop casinos on Hwy. 90 until we caught up. I'm kidding about the truckstop casinos. Not all of them are sleazy.

Fast forward almost a decade. After our most recent reassessment in 2008, our property tax burden went up another 70 percent to about $1,700. Our home's value, in the assessor's office's eyes, had appreciated considerably. That's a good thing if you're about to sell. Not so good if you're staying put for the long term. Property assessments, however, aren't based on up-close inspections of homes; they're based on the average of homes on your street - what houses near you are fetching on the real estate market.

This is where a little initiative on my part kicked in.

Our house was built in 1940 as a one bedroom-one bath cottage. Over the next half century a back porch was converted into a den, a garage/laundry room/utility shop was added to the side and two bedrooms and a bath were piled onto a second story. And there were obviously a lot of different carpenters and contractors who did these jobs, creating what I'll call some construction incongruities. The result: a drafty old house with a lot of character that springs leaks from time to time and requires a lot of upkeep, often at a pace we can scarcely afford to keep up with.

After getting our new and improved tax bill, I went around my house with a camera snapping pictures of the results of so many additions over so many decades: patches to the roof, boards warped by leaks, drip spots and cracks near the front door caused by a 10-ton concrete stoop that is slowly, inexorably sinking into the front yard and inconveniently bringing the front of the house with it.

I brought the photos to the assessor's office, sat down with a deputy assessor and made the case that there's no way we could sell the house for what the assessor's office valued it at - the reality of our home is far different than the view from the street. The deputy agreed and reduced the assessed value of our home roughly to where it was before the reassessment, knocking off almost the entire increase. I fought the law and I won.

I have friends now who own homes that haven't been reassessed in decades and who pay chump change annually on houses that are worth north of $200,000. Enjoy it while it lasts, I think to myself, because eventually the assessor will get around to your neighborhood and you'll be doing some gnashing and gritting of your own.