Property Pains

Lafayette's Conrad Comeaux isn't the only parish assessor tackling stout technology challenges.

Old ways die hard, particularly in bureaucracies, but Conrad Comeaux has declared war on one bastion of Acadiana obsolescence: the pencil-to-paper method of tracking property values in Lafayette Parish.

First elected at the end of the 20th century, the Lafayette assessor has huddled with peers to devise a method of bringing property assessment kicking and screaming into the 2st century.

And the biggest hurdle is this: There's no cheap way to get there. Witness Comeaux's recent request of parish officials to fund a portion of a $613,000 software bundle, known in property circles as a CAMA, or computer-assisted mass appraisal, system.

He's already footed the bill for $150,000 in hardware, including PCs, digital cameras and tablet PCs allowing quick field entry of property characteristics. And he's willing to spring for $264,000 of the $613,000 CAMA system, provided parish taxing bodies including the sheriff's office, school board, city-parish council and other municipalities cover the rest.

What's driving Comeaux to spend the equivalent of 36 percent of his annual budget on a single software system? The daily difficulties his field assessors face.

"It's horrible," Comeaux says of current methods. "Somebody goes out into the field with pencil and paper, draws a rough sketch in the field and adds characteristics. [CAMA] will cut down tremendously on the labor input and allow us to keep up with the assessment values, which is the ultimate goal.

"It'll be like going from prehistoric times to the high-tech era."

Quantifying gains

This month, Comeaux told parish and municipal officials his office left an estimated $200,000 in potential tax revenue on the table in the previous tax year, because deputy assessors were under-equipped in their ability to accurately assess all properties.

At that rate, taxing jurisdictions would recoup their investment in a few years, but Comeaux points to benefits beyond the bottom line for government. Fairness and accuracy in valuing property, those virtues coveted by taxpayers, rank high. "Currently, our system doesn't have input fields for the property characteristics," says Comeaux, describing such crucial benchmarks as square footage, construction type and construction quality. "All of those characteristics are not on our system. It's on paper."

That means human error enters the equation and makes property assessment an even more inexact science. Comeaux is equipping his staff to carry digital cameras, infrared measuring devices and tablet PCs into the field. With the CAMA system loaded on the tablet PCs, field assessors would be able to load sketches, property data, photos and measurements and download them seamlessly into the office computer.

CAMA offers automated calculation of property values based on the inputs and an audit trail showing every stage recorded, features that guarantee greater accuracy. And when taxpayers challenge their valuation, there's an appeals module to document that process. When the state mandates reassessment of property every four years, updating and recalculating values will be a snap because of all the data on file, according to Comeaux. Also, the assessor has acquired software to transfer that data to an Internet-based global information system, or GIS, so the public will be able to view property information by clicking on a map. About 40 percent of that mapping is done, and the partial GIS will debut this year, with the complete mapping of 100,000 parcels requiring several years.

The value equation

The case for making progress in property assessment has merit, but at what cost? Is the CAMA a good buy?

Livingston Parish Assessor Jeff Taylor thinks so. He's buying a system from the same Florida company as Comeaux ' Software Techniques ' and investing $45,000 in hardware (he's not buying tablet PCs now) while convincing parish officials to pay for a $371,000 CAMA.

Taylor's system will cost less because of lighter demand. Lafayette has nearly 200,000 people, 80,000 housing units and 6,700 businesses; Livingston has a little more than half Lafayette's population, 42,000 fewer housing units and 5,500 less businesses. Software Techniques President Larry Zirbel also says price differences in the parishes' CAMA programs result from different choices of 15 categories of tool sets within the system and support services from the company. Software Techniques hasn't yet signed final contracts with Livingston and Lafayette officials.

An Arkansas company would have required $3.5 million to complete a turnkey GIS mapping system of Livingston Parish, Taylor says. That's why he and Comeaux see the Florida CAMA system ' with its powerful assessment applications ' as a relative bargain. And they'll build the GIS platform gradually.

Taylor says the CAMA approach will increase his staff's ability to record every parcel of the parish for each reassessment.

"We know that it's going to make our office more efficient," he says. "If I can add to the rolls, you're going to get more revenue. If I don't, you're just going to keep rolling along, and you're going to be strapped."

Referrals led them to Software Techniques, where Comeaux witnessed the CAMA system handling, for two counties with more than 350,000 parcels each, all the functions he needs in Lafayette. The same system also tracks 2 million parcels for Houston.

But not everyone has gone out of state in search of mass appraisal systems. West Baton Rouge, the smallest parish by landmass with 10,000 parcels, debuted perhaps the most advanced appraisal system in Louisiana in December 2004 after Assessor Barney Altazan laid more than two years of groundwork for modernization. Altazan also spent about a third of his $520,000 annual budget to get there, but the result is a state-of-the-art GIS system that allows residents and land professionals alike to click on a property map for all relevant assessment data, plus sales information that's updated weekly.

"I think it's beneficial to the public because they can now get a ton of information from their office or their homes that prior to this required a trip down to the courthouse," says Deputy Assessor Chris Guerin. "The whole system has just cut down tremendously on the amount of time it takes to serve somebody."

West Baton Rouge tapped a pair of Louisiana consultants: Shreveport-based Software and Services and Metairie-based Geographic Computer Technologies to complete the appraisal conversion. "We're proud of what we have, and we were able to find some guys on the cutting-edge right here in the state who could take care of this for us," Guerin says, recalling a recent visit from a Lafayette customer. "He drove in and starting asking questions. And by the time we were all said and done, he said, 'I could have stayed home in my pajamas and found all this information.'

"That's what you hear all the time. People are very appreciative of being able to access the data online."