New Orleans' long tradition of having seven assessors -- each of whom is elected virtually for life -- has been one of the most unassailable constants in city politics. The fact that all seven assessors are now fighting for their political lives is a singular testament to the impact that Hurricane Katrina has had on the mind-set of the electorate.
Seven outraged citizens banded together in February after state lawmakers summarily killed a bill to combine the seven assessors' offices into one -- vowing to take on the entrenched assessors by running against them in the April 22 primary.
Calling themselves the "IQ" or "I Quit" ticket, the challengers' platform is simple: they promise to lobby lawmakers to combine their offices into one and then resign to make it happen. In the meantime, they also promise to donate their salaries and use their budgets -- more than $5 million if all seven are elected -- to hire professional appraisers who will reassess all property in their districts. Over the years, many have argued that the system of seven elected assessors has led to vast discrepancies and disparities in residential and commercial assessments -- causing some property owners to pay significantly higher taxes than their neighbors with similar properties.
"Many people who read the paper ... during the recent legislative session were distressed to see that politics as usual had derailed the assessors consolidation bill," says a greeting on the group's Web site (www.iqticket.org). "We think that nothing holds this city back more than our archaic, wasteful, who-you-know system of tax assessments. So we have formed a group that intends to take this question directly to the voters."
The "IQ" candidates pledge that if not all of their ticket is elected, they will use whatever portion of the total board of assessors funds they control in their districts to reassess all parcels in those districts.
The assessors argue that voters like being able to go down to City Hall and talk, face to face, with the people who have so much influence over their property taxes. In an age when government has become more and more removed from personal contact, they say people like being able to call their assessor by name -- and plead their case for a break when it's warranted. They warn that if the "IQ" ticket succeeds, the immediate result will be significantly higher property taxes across the board in New Orleans.
"In contrast to the higher taxes that the IQ gang will impose, the assessors have worked with the Louisiana Tax Commission in the wake of Katrina to lower assessments on all property in our districts that was subject to flooding," says Second District Assessor Claude Mauberret. "We've tried to give taxpayers an honest break, and we've done it in conjunction with the tax commission so we know it will be certified."
Mauberret says the assessors were able to lower assessments on flooded properties because they successfully lobbied lawmakers in the November 2005 special legislative session, securing passage of a bill authorizing reassessment of flood-damaged properties. "Mayor Nagin opposed us every step of the way, too," Mauberret adds. "He wanted everyone to have to pay to rebuild their homes and pay higher property taxes. Instead, we fought for the property owners in their time of need."
Races for assessor are normally quiet affairs, except when an assessor dies in office without leaving an heir or heir-apparent. This year's assessor contests have been anything but staid. The IQ Ticket has mounted an aggressive mail and email campaign, and lawn signs promoting the one-assessor idea have sprouted up all over town.
For their part, the assessors have not laid down and given up. In two districts, voters challenged the IQ ticket's attempt to include "IQ" as a nickname for each of its candidates on the ballot. The courts agreed that use of the "IQ" moniker with candidates' names on the ballot amounted to an unfair "designation" as opposed to a familiar "nickname," the latter of which is permitted by law. When the lower courts' rulings were upheld on appeal, Secretary of State Al Ater removed all "IQ" nicknames.
In two races, it will be easy to determine who the "IQ" challengers are because they are the only challengers to the incumbents. Those races are District 2 (Jackie Shreves challenging Mauberret) and District 3 (Erroll George taking on incumbent Erroll Williams). In the five other districts, "IQ" candidates have had to find other ways of distinguishing themselves from their fellow challengers.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, the "IQ" ticket gained support from organizations such as the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) and the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL), each of which issued reports arguing for one assessor in New Orleans.
Assessor, 1st Municipal District
David P. Baird, 53, Republican
Maria Elliott, 46, Democrat
Darren Mire, 37, Democrat
Assessor, 2nd Municipal District
Claude Mauberret, 44, Democrat
Jackie Shreves, 60, Independent
Assessor, 3rd Municipal District
Errol George, 37, Democrat
Erroll Williams, 56, Democrat
Gerard Archer, 48, Democrat
Betty Jefferson, 67, Democrat
Chase Jones, 34, Democrat
Assessor, 5th Municipal District
Tom Arnold, 63, Republican
Ron Mazier, 38, Independent
Benita W. Scott, 53, Republican
Albert L. Coman, 46, Democrat
Andrew Gressett, 50, Democrat
Nancy Marshall, 52, Democrat
Edwin ÒWinÓ Stoutz Jr., 64, Democrat
Charlie Bosworth, 64, Independent
Henry F. Heaton, 47, Democrat
Joe Jones, NA, Independent
Braden P. Robinson, 47, Reform
- Donn Young
"We've tried to give taxpayers an honest break. ... We fought for the property owners in their time of need."
Second District Assessor