Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Assessment Reform???

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an exposé on how the new property tax assessment system isn't working as the "reformers" had hoped. Apparently, the same kind of "squeaky wheel gets the grease" syndrome is at work, only this time it's the private company subcontracted to handle appeals rather than the assessors themselves. Here's how the article starts:

If most homeowners came away smiling after successfully seeking lower assessments from the firm hired by the city to manage 6,000 appeals, the city's seven assessors were less thrilled with the outcome.

In about one-third of the cases in which they were overturned, the assessors are appealing the appeals. In defense of their original valuations, the assessors have asked the state Tax Commission to review about 1,350 properties that received reductions from the City Council, which acted on the advice of the law firm Frilot LLC.

To some assessors, the privatized process was riddled with the same capriciousness for which assessors have long been criticized. The old system came under fire because it promoted cozy relations between homeowners and the people who decide how much their houses are worth.
Well, well, well ...

"Appealing the appeals" ?!?!?! I wonder how much that's going to cost the taxpayer.

Anyway ...

It appears that some of my fears about the "reform" movement, particularly the principle of "outsourcing" the assessment process to an unelected and unaccountable private subcontractor, which formed a part of the "IQ" or "I Quit" platform, are coming home to roost. The more we outsource or privatize public policy decision-making (such as tax collection) away from the elected officials who are specifically elected by the people to do this job, the measure of accountability goes down a notch. Now, we have a situation where Assessors can claim that they were doing the very difficult job that the electorate demanded of them, but that the outsourcing of the appeals process is resulting in more of the same inequities that previously existed. The difference is, now, that taxpayers are footing the bill not only for the salaries of the Assessors and their offices, but also the costs of this independent and private subcontractor hired to handle appeals that should have been handled by the Assessors themselves. The way the Assessors are talking now, including IQ reformer Nancy Marshall, they'd have us believe that their hands are tied by the City Council and the Tax Commission. And, truth be told, their complaints are justified. They were elected to do a job, which should include handling the appeals to their own assessments, and yet the "privatization" of part of the job to an unelected and unaccountable third party has meant that we can now STILL have gross inequities in the assessment process, but that the assessors, whom we elect for the job, can't be held accountable. That was part of my beef with the IQ movement to begin with. They wanted to "quit," to absolve themselves ultimately of the responsibilities of the job and to use their salaries to pay for a better-qualified, non-political, unelected, professional, and "objective" private assessment authority to fix the problem. Well, they quit part of their job (which is handling the appeals) and look where it got them. Look where it got us.

I sniffed some of these problems out from the beginning. I lamented the fact that the assessment and appeals processes were not transparent and clear. I feared adding another layer of disconnect between the voter and the decision-makers that characterized the IQ movement. I deplored the IQ movement not for its representation of a need for reforming the assessment process, but for its cynical treatment of the democratic process in doing so, for its plans that I saw as an effort to remove assessments even further from elected officials and, thus, public accountability.

So I ask now, especially to IQ movement supporters, when looking at this joke of an appeals process that smacks of institutionalized and privatized cronyism (you know, the softer, gentler side of private sector customer service philosophy, where the customer is "always right") whom do we punish at the polls the next time around?

My recommendation is that we force the Assessors not to "quit" their jobs, not to "quit" even any part of their jobs, but to reclaim the whole kit-and-kaboodle, from determining assessment to dealing with appeals directly, and to do it right and competently according to the expectations of the people who elected them.

There's so much more to be said on this point, and I'll probably say more on this myself in the upcoming weeks, but I'll stop here for now, take a breath to try to cool my boiling blood, and listen to what you have to say.

UPDATE: Tuesday, December 4, 7:26pm: Oyster at Your Right Hand Thief has a different reaction. In fact, we're kinda at strong loggerheads on this point. I think it's because we both are a bit personally invested in aspects of the assessment issue. He's graciously linked to me in an update to his original posting. He also has a much more detailed critique of my posting in the comments section (to which I responded), so be sure to read them. Let me just say that I respect Oyster's position and see the value of his points. He argues that I lack a sense of history and proportion. I don't think so. I think, if anything, I'm too much wracked by a sense of history and proportion. I think Oyster is so invested in the success of the current reform process (and I should note that I, too, hope for the best), that he is willing to overlook the obvious: the same patterns are present, albeit under different "management." He wants to look forward with positive energy to a new game, as do we all, but we still need to be vigilant lest we let our hopes blind us to the process of continuing to exorcise the ghosts that go much deeper than who occupies the assessor's chair. He makes the case that I'm "letting the perfect be an enemy of the good." That's one way to look at it, I suppose. But, as I wrote in a comment to his posting over at YRHT, I'd describe my attitude more as not letting an imperfect better be an excuse for the bad. And, I don't know about you all, but what I read on the front page this morning in the Times-Picayune, especially when coupled with the picture and caption of the recent assessment history of 1442 Nashville Ave., was bad.

10 comments:

oyster said...

Your "blood is boiling" over 6,000 appeals and 1350 challenges to those appeals, after a citywide assessment? Incredible. That's a small rounding error compared to what has been gained: vastly more accurate assessments, and lowered millages (these are uncontestable facts-- don't give me any anecdotal rebuttals, "well my neighbor ...").

You can read my post explaining why decades of cronyism and corrupt practices led to this unfortunate situation.

http://righthandthief.blogspot.com/2007/12/orleans-assessors-cant-abide.html

After your community has been drained by rich greedheads and their corrupt cronies for decades, your blood boils over (relative) pennies on the dollar, and your harshest complaints are for the IQ ticket, which helped make these reforms possible? Do I have that about right? That's just baffling to me.

When you say things like "look where it got us"... it's like you are on a different planet. Property taxes are going down 30%. More properties are accurately valued. Assessor offices will be consolidated. New Orleans has shown it can uproot a cronified political machine that had been in place for 80 years (by virtue of the IQ ticket).

"My recommendation is that we force the Assessors not to "quit" their jobs, not to "quit" even any part of their jobs, but to reclaim the whole kit-and-kaboodle, from determining assessment to dealing with appeals directly, and to do it right and competently according to the expectations of the people who elected them."

What fantasia is this? What the hell does that sentence mean in the context of political reality in New Orleans? It's certainly a pretty thought, but exactly how did you or do intend to "reclaim the whole 'kit and kaboodle"?

Hell, I can RECOMMEND New Orleans having a competent mayor who does his flipping job, but does that mean I'm going to get all bent out of shape if by the grace of God Nagin were recalled and, say, Mitch Landrieu entered office but didn't live up to my expectations? Hell no. Am I going to reserve my venom for Mitch, who is perhaps 3 times better than Nagin, when I was anticipating that he would be 10 times better!

As for your query: "whom do we punish at the polls the next time around?" Well, as you should know, there is no "next time around" for the Orleans 7. Reformers voted last year to consolidate those corrupt offices into a single Assessorship for the parish.

Drive-By Blogger said...

Dude, u got that Oyster guy spitting up pearls!

You my new friend and because of that, I'm with you on this.

You know what they should do? They should triple the Amusement tax. I like that tax because I never get a bill for it and I have never been prosecuted for not paying it.

I tell you what tho, you 2 guys can write real good. And did u notice that Oyster said "flipping" instead of that other word that u had to call me out on the other day? Now that's class.

BTW, that Ashley guy, I think he is angry with me. Oh well, flip it, can't make everybody flipping happy!

Huck said...

oyster - Just like you, I am somewhat personally invested in this issue. So my passion in many ways is as exaggerated as yours is. As soon as I saw the article this morning, I went to your blog because I knew you would be writing on this. Perhaps you came to my blog thinking that I'd have something to say as well. For what it's worth, I read your posting, and I can say that it is as full of passionate and heated outrage as mine is. Perhaps my reaction is a bit overexaggerated. I won't deny that it could be; but I'd say your is, too.

Regarding the substance of your comment, I should say that part of what boils my blood is not that the Assessors would complain as they did about the appeals process, but that they can complain about this and come up smelling like roses. The fact is, they have a point. And, personally, I think your outrage is partly due to the fact that they can make this point and that it resonates. They can point the finger and say that the complaints over mishandling the assessment process wasn't them -- at least not just them. And they are right. You want to lay at the feet of the assessors almost the entire culpability for the old way of doing business; but this whole situation just shows, embarrassingly, that the root of the problem goes much, much deeper than cronyist assessors.

The voters made a stink about the way the assessors behaved and sent a message to them. They "woke up" and did the right thing. And now what happens? Their work gets undone by an unaccountable third party who is behaving according to a good private sector public service model of "the customer is always right." What the hell are the assessors doing appealing the appeals? You don't find that a bit absurd?

My point is that the whole way this reform movement took shape was cynical from the get-go. And I'm just saying that this cynicism colors the outcome that we are faced with now.

What really ticked me off in reading this article was not what the assessors did or didn't do; but the fact that a property at 1442 Nashville Street, shown on the front page of the TP, had a 2007 assessment of $389,200 which was raised in 2008 to $741,000 only to drop on appeal to $322,400! Explain that one to me.

To listen to you defend the "old" way of sweet-talking your assessment down in an untransparent appeals process because it's no longer the assessors making the sweetheart deals strikes me as a bit disingenous. I would expect you to be outraged that people are still able to get away with such things. I would expect you to be outraged that people can get away with this by appealing to an unaccountable and unelected third party. I would expect you to be outraged that these blatant sweetheart appeals deals, no matter how much fewer they are, because they are no longer being done by the assessors themselves, gives the assessors very solid cover. I would expect you to say that 1350 cases where even those "cronyist" assessors (!) claim the appeals are so out of line by their measure that they felt the need to "appeal the appeal" is 1350 cases too much.

You tell me not to point to discrepancies in assessments with my neighbors, but isn't that what started off the whole damn reform movement to begin with? If we can't compare the inequitable way that assessments (and appeals of assessments) are done from one house to the next, how can we ever be able to be confident in the way that the "new" system is functioning.

As to the voter's ability to have a say in the next election, I think this current story unfortunately projects to us that it doesn't matter who even the next sole assessor is, because no matter what that assessor does, people now feel they can petition to an unelected third party to undo what even the best and most competent single assessor does. And I hold the "IQ" movement partly responsible for getting people so worked up about the corruption of assessors that they damaged the credibility of the whole assessment system. So much so that their argument was to have people vote for candidates with absolutely no experience in real estate valuation and assessment, and who would agree to use their salaries to pay someone else to do the job, as the better alternative.

You speak as if the single assessor system, when it comes online, will be the panacea. And I hope it is better than it was before; but the fact that not even 7 assessors finally doing the job right can meet with a success rate better than what this story indicates doesn't inspire all that much confidence.

oyster said...

"To listen to you defend the "old" way of sweet-talking your assessment down in an untransparent appeals process because it's no longer the assessors making the sweetheart deals strikes me as a bit disingenous."

I never did that, or meant to do that. I don't know what you could possibly be referring to. I'm possibly the only person in this city who went to see my assessor and protest that my assessment was too low. (This was prior to Katrina.)

"I would expect you to say that 1350 cases where even those "cronyist" assessors (!) claim the appeals are so out of line by their measure that they felt the need to "appeal the appeal" is 1350 cases too much."

Yes, fine I'll grant that point, but it is small beer.

"You tell me not to point to discrepancies in assessments with my neighbors, but isn't that what started off the whole damn reform movement to begin with? If we can't compare the inequitable way that assessments (and appeals of assessments) are done from one house to the next, how can we ever be able to be confident in the way that the "new" system is functioning."

The new system is barely a year old, and will be changed and modified over the coming years. It's still exponentially better than the nonsystem we had prior.

"You speak as if the single assessor system, when it comes online, will be the panacea."

No, I don't regard it as a panacea. But it is a crucial step towards reform.

Yes, I'm invested and passionate about this issue (although I have absolutely no connections to IQ or to Marshall). But it seems like every complaint you make about current conditions could apply tenfold to previous years.

Can you name one positive thing that the assessors did the past, say, 80 years? Did they do ANYTHING at all except suck off the public teet and perpetuate an insidious little provincial, cronified backasswards system?

===
Anyway, I enjoy our lively debates on this issue, despite how flustered I get by your position.

But, as I like to say: no friction, no thought.

Huck said...

But it seems like every complaint you make about current conditions could apply tenfold to previous years.

I never said they don't.

Can you name one positive thing that the assessors did the past, say, 80 years? Did they do ANYTHING at all except suck off the public teet and perpetuate an insidious little provincial, cronified backasswards system?

There's no defense of the past as far as I am concerned. You won't see me defending the past system. But the evils of the past don't translate into blanket approval of reform at whatever cost by any means. That's where my issues come into the current process. I keep saying this, but I wonder if it sinks in: my criticism of some aspects of the current, post-IQ system aren't endorsements of the past. I personally don't think saying things are better now than in the past means all that much when one considers how bad the past was. I'd rather look at the present and measure it against the ideal. And though there are many things hopeful about the present, I'm still not willing to allow that hopefulness to obfuscate the lingering bad, nor to give me pause in criticizing what I find to be problematic (and even counterproductive and damaging) in the way that the reform movement has tried to deal with the bad.

Anyway, I enjoy our lively debates on this issue, despite how flustered I get by your position.

But, as I like to say: no friction, no thought.


Amen, Oyster. Amen.

Drive-By Blogger said...

Uh, am I being ignored?

Huck said...

drive-by blogger - No, you're not being ignored. How could anyone truly ignore you? I would suggest that you consider the lack of response until now as part of the whole performance art nature of drive-by blogging. ;)

By the way, I read your blog recently. Just one comment on that: I hope your wife doesn't read it. She might get the wrong idea about us.

Drive-By Blogger said...

What's with this "Performance art" crap? I like you but that is starting to get on my nerves. As for my wife, you let me worry about her. I keep her straight!

Now, amigo, if you read my blog you know how I detest fat kids. So here's another idea.

Tax those little blimps everytime they walk into McDonalds and order French fries or a milk shake, and stuff. Count Chocular or whatever they call that cereal...tax it, 2 bucks a box.

If by the age of 10, they still are chubbed up, then charge the parents a higher property tax.

Remember what the word "taxing" means. It should penalize people who make their homes look nice.

Tax those who are messing things up. I have always thought that if we tax the homeless people, they would quit being homeless.

See, just like if you tax people in their homes they remain home because they have less money to spend.

BTW, have you ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck?

Huck said...

What's with this "Performance art" crap? I like you but that is starting to get on my nerves.

For a blogger having recieved such accolades from the Communities Rising Art Projects, among others, you disappoint me by pretending ignorance as to Performance Art "crap." I'm just shocked and saddened by your question. Makes me wonder if that Best Blog Award you received is truly deserved.

As to your question to me about my experience with the back of pick-up trucks ... well, mi amigo, let's just say my experience with the back of pick-up trucks goes well-beyond simply riding in them. I figured a creature of your insight and genius would have surmised that about me by now.

Drive-By Blogger said...

HA! Not if your pick-up truck was parked on your front lawn on top of concrete blocks. HA

As for be shocked and saddened by me, how many times have I heard my mother say that?