By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

The City Council began its three-week budget-review  process Tuesday, with council members learning how much of $494 million in general-fund cash will come from property taxes, and hearing how the finance department intends to spend a proposed $50 million chunk of that money.

The day began with Orleans Parish Assessor Errol Williams,  who faced tough questions from council members about how New Orleans properties were assessed this year. More than $106 million of the general fund revenue comes from property taxes, or 22 percent.


Councilwoman Stacy Head grilled Williams about how much property tax money was lost to the LSU/VA Hospital expansion – a  $600,000  net loss, by Williams’ estimate –  and why French Quarter and Uptown properties are being sold at greater prices than their assessed values.

“It’s listed for sale at $5.5 million, (but assessed) for $2.3 million,” speaking of one Audubon Place property. She spoke of at least two other residential properties in the French Quarter that were being sold for millions, but assessed for thousands.

Williams responded that he found three incorrect assessments on the tax rolls after the rolls closed, and that due to another technical glitch, these couldn’t be changed immediately. He did not specify what the problem was or if it  is fixed.

“From a personal standpoint, that was one of my gray hairs, that I thought I had finished,” he said to the council. “Now, my discovery was…to go back and write a letter saying that in my effort to revalue the property, I have determined that we’ve erred in my revaluation.”

He then said that it was possible that people renovated their houses after they were assessed and then put them back on the market, but later acknowledged that there were multiple problems in the assessing process that still needed to be solved.

Head also encouraged the public to report unfair assessments to the city.

“Fair assessments are key to a democratic and fair society,” she implored. “If you are paying your fair share, if you are assessed properly, and your neighbor’s not, you are paying their taxes.”

Another presentation that sparked council members’ concerns was Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin’s presentation of the proposed millage roll forward, and a breakdown of millage rate changes over the last 20 years. Councilwoman Kristin Giselson Palmer asked if there is any documentation on how much the cost of living has changed in New Orleans over the same period, and then how that cost of living compares regionally to other cities.

“We need to make sure we aren’t incentivizing people to leave our city,” Palmer said.

Head agreed, and noted that despite decreases in population post-Katrina, property taxes have consistently gone up. Property taxes were set at $80 million for a larger pre-Katrina population, she noted, and are now at $106 million for a smaller population.

“It seems like we continue to burden too few people and we discourage the middle class from living in Orleans Parish,” she said.

Head and Palmer’s concerns are just part of council concern over a proposed roll forward in millage, which the Landrieu administration has insisted will not raise the tax rate higher than it was last year.  Council President Jackie Clarkson said at last Monday’s administration presentation of the budget that the public will still feel any millage increases because taxes won’t go down, or rise less.

By law, when the assessor has determined that the value of all property in the city goes up, as it did this year, the millage rate must be rolled back to ensure that the city brings in the same amount as the previous year. However, each taxing agency has the ability to roll forward the millage back to the previous level, after holding a public hearing on the matter.

That public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1, the same day the council must have a 2012 budget in place.

Many taxing agencies in the city have already rolled forward their millage; notably, the Orleans Parish School board did not.

How should New Orleans taxpayers’ money be spent?

The Lens wants to know what your priorities are in local government spending. Click here and take a moment to tell The Lens and the Public Insight Network how you feel that the city government should spend the $494 million collected from taxpayers this year. We may follow up with you for an interview.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...