Council passes resolution calling for reviews, new policies on industrial tax exemptions, but assessor may not comply

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The New Orleans City Council on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution urging Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll Williams to complete a comprehensive review of all exemptions granted to businesses in Orleans Parish under the state’s Industrial Tax exemption Program. 

The resolution asks for the work to be complete by March 31, 2020. 

But in an interview after the vote, Williams said said he might not comply with the requests. 

“We will review the resolution,” he said. “The things that we agree with we will move on and the things we disagree with we’ll agree to disagree.”

The resolution was announced last week, the day after The Lens published a report about potential defects in Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll Williams’ process for tracking the exemptions. There are at least two properties — owned by Folgers and worth a combined $40 million — that were exempted by the assessor in 2018 and 2019, even though the exemptions expired in 2017. A request to renew the exemptions was denied by the state last year and again in February, but Williams did not take action to confirm that the exemptions were invalid until August, after more than a month of questions from Councilwoman Helena Moreno. 

The resolution also calls for Williams to formally develop and adopt a written policy to monitor the industrial tax exemptions. And it asks for an annual report from the assessor on “all tax incentive policies, procedures, projects, and exemption status.”

Moreno said that the council can’t force Williams to comply because his office is a state-created agency and he is an independent elected official. 

“This resolution merely urges the assessor to comply,” Moreno said at the meeting. “He is not part of a city agency therefore we can’t force him to do this, but were hoping just out of respect for the public he’ll comply.”

While Williams said he may honor some of the requests, he said he would not comply with the request for a written policy for tracking the tax exemptions. 

“They’re not going to get that,” he said. “That’s none of their business. That’s an internal policy.”

He said that he is already in the midst of reviewing industrial tax exemptions. But by his own admission, his process is not foolproof. 

It’s not the greatest priority for our office, obviously.

Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll Williams

Pressure from Moreno regarding the two Folgers exemptions finally prompted Williams to reach out to the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, the state department that administers the ITE program, last month. 

The department informed him that the two exemptions were in fact expired. After he got that message, Williams told The Lens that he would tax the properties in 2020, which he said will bring in roughly $700,000 in revenue, and seek the uncollected taxes from 2018 and 2019. 

Williams said that the only sure way to check the status of an exemption is by checking with the Department of Economic Development. But he’s not going to contact the department to confirm the validity of remaining ITEP exemptions. 

Instead, he is relying on internal records for the review — the same records that indicated the Folgers exemptions were active after they’d expired. 

“The review process is not going to catch it,” he said.

The Lens asked why he would use a process that he admits is flawed. 

“It’s not the greatest priority for our office, obviously,” he said. “I’m doing what I get paid to do.”

He said that after his office finalizes the tax rolls for 2020, he will hire an outside auditor to review their process and make recommendations.

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