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