JR Ball: Do your job as Baton Rouge tax assessor, Mr. Wilson
The days of East Baton Rouge Parish property owners paying the price for Brian Wilson’s unwillingness to actually do his job must end.
Mr. Wilson, why won’t you competently do your job?
I’m not kidding. What’s the problem?
As the duly elected tax assessor of this parish, Wilson essentially has one job: Accurately assess the value of taxable property—along with any structures on said land—and turn the information over to Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who then sends out those dreaded Scrooge-like green and red Christmas cards demanding the annual payment of property taxes.
Wilson doesn’t pass taxes. He doesn’t collect taxes. Basically, he’s the middleman in the property tax equation, tasked simply with determining the value of what we’ve got.
We know Wilson understands the concept of his job, saying this on his own website: “It is my desire as your assessor to properly interpret these laws, to assess all property in this parish fairly and equitably.”
That may be his desire, but the vexing reality is it ain’t happening.
Honestly, this guy is the Cleveland Browns of tax assessors.
Don’t believe me? Then go to the tax assessor’s website and see for yourself. Just find the geoportal map, start clicking on parcels and brace yourself for hours of head-scratching bewilderment. It’s a particularly good time if you concentrate on where the more affluent among us reside.
For example, there’s a well-known gentleman living on a Ponderosa-like spread along Highland Road. The total assessed value of the three parcels comprising this compound is $2.6 million—or $260,000 in assessor speak. I double-dog dare anyone to hop the fence, knock on the door and offer this man a check for that amount to buy the place. The good news: You’ll eventually get a shot at acquiring it in an estate sale because he’ll die from laughter.
Once done with the hilarity along Highland, cruise over to Moss Side Lane or to any subdivision that includes the name “Bocage.” I was amazed to discover in one single-street, gated and uber-tony subdivision that a house with an assessment of $1.1 million sits next to a pretty much identical house Wilson claims is worth just $600,000.
On the other side of Moss Side is a massive three-parcel spread that, according to Wilson’s calculations, is worth just $1 million.
I’ve been to this homestead on numerous occasions and not only is it fantastic but it’s also worth way more than $1 million. Go ahead, Mr. Wilson, explain yourself.
And, please, don’t bother me with “these fine people are already paying a mighty hefty property tax bill.” First, that has zero to do with your job and, two, if they don’t want an eye-popping tax bill then they should buy or build a less expensive house.
For the record, my house is assessed at $283,500—or $28,350 per the tax bill—which, congratulations, Mr. Wilson, is actually pretty accurate, though I’d like to score closer to $300,000 if it were up for sale.
So why do we care?
It matters because Wilson’s failure to execute leads to higher millage rates, which, in turn, leads to higher property tax bills—especially for those of us in homes that are semi-accurately assessed.
The government agencies benefitting the most from property taxes are public schools (whether that’s Baton Rouge, Baker, Central or Zachary), the library system and BREC. In the end, they just want our money, not caring especially how they get it. They simply determine how much they want, look at the current all-in value of assessed property and calculate the millage necessary to fulfill their cash desires.
I know this because the issue of out-of-whack assessments is brought up by yours truly every time folks from one of these groups comes lobbying for a new property tax or a renewal. Their response to the problem: We’re not looking to rock the boat, we just want our money.
Given that bastion of good government take, here’s where Wilson’s ineptitude kicks in. Returning to our Highland Road example, and to keep the math easy, let’s guesstimate the actual value of this estate to be $4 million. Again, in the name of simple math, we’ll go with a total millage of 100.
So, Wilson’s farcical $2.6 million assessment of the three-parcel spread that includes a massive home, a fabulous pool and pool house, a tennis court and some serious open land results in a hypothetical property tax bill of $26,000. However, a proper assessment of $4 million results in a $40,000 annual tab. In other words, this gentleman is getting a $14,000 yearly discount on what he should be paying in property taxes.
That’s just one residential property. Add up all the under-assessed residential parcels and we’re pretty quickly talking some serious jack.
We’ll never see it, but somewhere in the bowels of a dark and musty storage room is an unpublished draft of a study done less than 10 years ago by some really smart and knowledgeable people. After crunching the numbers, this august group apparently determined assessments in this parish are off by some 30%. The miscalculations are even higher—pushing closer to 40%—when looking only at the highest-valued land and the most expensive mansions.
Which might explain, given how this city operates, why the study—once the results were known—was buried deeper than the descent of LSU football from national prominence.
Let’s also not forget what apparently is going on with commercial assessments, as detailed by Stephanie Riegel in her Business Report cover story. Her analysis of more than a dozen recent commercial transactions found Wilson’s assessments to be, on average, at just 55% of the actual sales price, a loss of $2.3 million per year on those examples alone. The numbers were so eye-catching that the Louisiana Tax Commission is getting off its backside to do a little investigative work.
Returning to those government agencies craving property tax dollars and their “by any means necessary” principles, and the result is a demand for higher millage rates to make up for all of Wilson’s discounts.
In the name of unity, here’s an issue both Together Baton Rouge and St. George supporters can rally around: Getting Wilson to do his job.
He’s been the tax assessor here since 2002, so it seems reasonable—after 16 years—to ask: Just how steep is the learning curve?
Not only should every property owner in the parish bombard Wilson’s office with phone calls and emails demanding that he right his many assessment wrongs, but also those agencies where property tax dollars are their lifeblood need to be put on notice. No more new property taxes or renewals until they start applying the heat and demand some competence from our longtime tax assessor.
Finally, Mr. Wilson, if doing the one job you have is too difficult, then please step aside and let someone else give it a shot.