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Mandated tax reassessment exacerbates pandemic

LAPLACE – Sticker shock is likely greeting many St. John the Baptist Parish residents as they are met by their annual property tax bill.

Unfortunately, this year packs a double-whammy because a constitutionally mandated reassessment comes amidst a global pandemic that has caused millions of workers to lose their jobs.

“A lot of our people are out of work, a lot of us are suffering, a lot of us are having health issues but we were told (by state officials) it is a constitutional law that we have to reassess (in 2020),” assessor Lucien Gauff told council members this past Tuesday in Laplace.

“I’m not the only (assessor) that felt like my parish is suffering but it’s my job to do, so I had to do it,” he added.

Gauff, who has recently come under viscous social media attacks as the tax bills land in mailboxes, explained the reassessment is based on property values from the past two to three years, assuring the market value for residential and commercial properties are “fairly assessed.”

“The last two to three years the market value has gone up in the region,” Gauff said. “With interest rates low, many people seem to be reinvesting in their communities and our properties are selling at the price owners are asking.”

The real estate boom, along with the fact the past two reassessments did not include every neighborhood or the market value did not call for a change, has in some cases resulted in property taxes doubling or even tripling. Depending on the hike, the assessor’s office is raising those taxes incrementally to soften the financial hit.

Gauff explained that he discovered there were some multi-unit complexes that were grossly underassessed. He cited as examples complexes selling for $300,000 and above, yet they were previously assessed at $50,000.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if your home that was 2,000 square feet is assessed at more than a four-plex, or a six-plex that is getting income revenue of it,” Gauff, a former council member, said. “I’m sorry, I have to do my job to reassess them to bring them to market values.

“We have uniformly and fairly done our reassessment.”

However, he admitted his office is not perfect and encouraged residents who believe they might have been over assessed to call his office. Gauff said residents must bring their narrative appraisal, insurance forms that show recovery costs, pictures of damage to the property that assessors could not see or were unaware off and a closing statement of a sale to the meeting.

If an impasse is reached, residents can appeal to the council.

“We probably have not gone all the way we need to go,” Gauff said. “Over the last eight to 12 years the market is showing we needed to reassess and reevaluate our fair market values.”

He also emphasized residents 65 and older or who are 64 and will turn 65 during the calendar year, are entitled to have their property tax amount frozen at the current rate.

“I got a lot of phone calls over this,” Councilman Tonia Schnyder told Gauff. “But here’s the thing. You say you have a job to do, but we are in the middle of a pandemic and a lot of people don’t have a job. So there was no kind of way we could have went to whomever above you and argue this fact?”

Gauff repeated what he had said only minutes earlier, that he and colleagues throughout the state had made similar appeals but were denied.

“Remember where all of this money goes,” Gauff said, reminding council members the ad valorem taxes help fund the school system, the parish and the sheriff’s office.

“It’s for the kids, the community and the betterment of the community,” he said.

Gauff spoke shorty after Dr. Lynett Hookfin, superintendent for St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, addressed the council for the first time since being hired in June. Hookfin, a New Orleans native and graduate of Grambling State, preached “unity in the community.”

Although the school system currently has a “C” rating, Hookfin is adamant the system could earn an “A+” rating based on the potential she perceives in the district’s students. Such a lofty rating would increase the parish’s market value in economic development.

“That will only happen with you,” she told the council. “Let’s work together as one. Until we come together we will be mediocre.”

She also challenged each council member to be principal for a day at one of the schools, which not only elicited a few chuckles but also several firm commitments.