Since taking office, Mayor Ray Nagin has proved he's not afraid to take on tough opponents. But his latest fight -- against the city's seven assessors -- could put him in the mother of all political battles.
The fight erupted in the wake of the recently completed legislative session.
Nagin is chagrined at the assessors for convincing lawmakers to pass a bill that he says will force the city to spend $10 million to settle a longstanding lawsuit brought by assessors against the city. The suit claims the city has failed for decades to pay its share of contributions to the assessors' pension fund. The suit is still pending, but even if the assessors win, they know that collecting a judgment against the city is like waiting for Godot.
The recent legislation forces the city to the table, but it stacks the deck in the assessors' favor. Nagin's administration has worked hard to scrape together a fund balance (read: "surplus"), but the new law would effectively wipe it out and put the city back in the hole by several million. Moreover, Nagin didn't create this problem; he inherited it. The alleged underpayments date back several decades. Now he may be stuck with the tab.
The situation probably could be resolved with some diplomacy, but that's something the administration has in short supply. Nagin's top political adviser and chief of intergovernmental relations, former state Rep. Garey Forster, operates more like a military commando than a diplomat. Forster loves a good fight, even if he has to start it himself. It's no small coincidence that Forster has been at odds with the assessors since he was a legislator in the 1980s. He routinely filed bills to combine the city's seven assessors' offices into one. The bills typically went nowhere, but that never seemed to deter Forster.
Now that Forster has the ear of the mayor, it appears Nagin is making this old fight his own. In a speech to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Nagin spoke of possible savings to the city if the seven assessors were replaced by one. Assessors say that's hogwash, because their budgets are determined by a fixed millage -- which means there would be no budgetary difference, regardless of whether the city had one assessor or 17. Nagin also threatened to sue the assessors, saying they routinely and systematically under-assess properties -- which costs the city millions each year in unrealized revenues. Of that there can be no doubt, but most voters see that as a good thing. It's the main reason we still elect our assessors.
Politically, this is shaping up as a collision between the irresistible force (Nagin) and the immovable object (the assessors). Nagin's popularity is stratospheric, but the assessors have a direct pipeline to voters' pocketbooks. Mayors come and go, but assessors pretty much have lifetime tenure.
I'm not sure this is a fight Nagin can win, no matter how right he may be. That's because there's a huge difference between smart politics and good public policy.
If Nagin pushes for one assessor and fails, he will look weak. If he succeeds, he could create a Frankenstein -- another citywide elected official whose influence will rival his own (and who will likely win without Nagin's support, if recent elections are any guide). Plus, there's no guarantee that a single elected assessor will be any more enthusiastic about "fair and uniform" assessments than the current seven.
If Nagin sues, chances are the suit won't be resolved until long after he's gone. What's more, Nagin's fundamental message is that property tax collections should go up. Voters -- particularly property owners -- understand very well what that means.
Ironically, those likely to be hit hardest by "improved" assessment policies are the very folks who elected Nagin last year. If he wants to plumb the depths of voters' affection for him, he's a brave man to aim straight for their wallets.
- Donn Young
- Mayor Ray Nagin didn't create this problem; he inherited it. Now he may be stuck with the tab.