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Uncompetitive assessors' races deserved more scrutiny

While higher profile races may have gotten more attention, voters in Caddo and Bossier Parishes delivered a verdict on an intriguing question in the contests for the same minor office – do they care about what a parish assessor does or can do?

Democrat Incumbent Caddo Assessor Charles Henington got his first challenge in a dozen years from Republican attorney Royal Alexander, a past state Attorney General candidate and who worked on Capitol Hill. Alexander made as his main issue the fact that Caddo residents paid the most in property taxes and declared that, generally speaking, comparable properties in Caddo were assessed at a higher value than elsewhere.

Henington responded by saying Caddo never had been cited by the state for having values out of line with what assessments ought to be.
The Louisiana Tax Commission, by law, conducts a “ratio study” annually that seeks to compare median property values assessed to actual sales, and mandates a reassessment if the study shows a parish’s average falls 10 percent above or below.

But lacking orders for reassessment does not mean that assessments aren’t too high. As long as Caddo remained less than 10 percent on the high side, it did not have to reassess, yet it could have been above average, even close to double digits high, for many years. That pattern would indicate inflation of assessment values. Unfortunately, these studies are not publicly released, although Henington never volunteered information based on the studies to show that assessment did not consistently come in high.

Perhaps he didn’t defend himself this way because the validity of these very studies themselves has come under criticism. Almost a decade ago the state’s legislative auditor issued a scathing report on the methodology, and even years later, only recently, experts continued to question them. In short, Henington never offered definitive proof that Alexander’s assertion was incorrect.

Instead, he tried the tactic of shaping the image of Alexander as uninformed or disingenuous, by stating tax rates were a product of other governing body’s decisions and he as assessor could not do anything about this, implying that Alexander disputed this. While accurate on the law, this also sidestepped the issue and did not refute Alexander’s claim that the challenger would “cut your taxes” as assessor, as Alexander, presuming Henington’s assessments weren’t already at the very low end of the permissible range, legally could do so in assessing as long as they did not go below that 10 percent range.

Regardless, the issue apparently didn’t get much traction as Henington won by about 30 percent, doing slightly better than what a party-line vote would suggest. It would be interesting to have a public records request made to get released the past ratio studies and compare the past Henington results with those over the next four years.

Across the river, another battle brewed for this job, between incumbent Republican Bobby Edmiston and fellow GOP challenger Ryal Siem. No such defining issue emerged here, which was unfortunate because there was one that deserved debate.

Throughout 2010, Edmiston, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, was deployed in Iraq and did not serve as a full-time assessor. While Louisiana statutes do not prohibit an assessor from having outside employment, certainly the spirit of the law was violated by Edmiston’s dual employment and in paying him a full-time salary for a part-time effort.

Edmiston argued he was able to hold down both jobs at once, but it seems hardly likely that he did not abrogate an implicit deal with Bossier citizens. If anything, active duty military service is often more than a 40-week-an-hour job (even though on his 2010 disclosure form he listed it as “part-time” at a total salary of $6,155.36, begging the question why the Army would send him overseas for apparently such a minor job), so it seems unlikely that he could respect a similar commitment to Bossier taxpayers and get his elected job done without increasing the workload on his staff to compensate for his lack of time to devote to it. How much that cost extra the citizenry remains unknown. And if in fact he didn’t take too many hours a week to fulfill his assessor duties completely thereby not having to fob off his work onto others, this begs the question whether he performs the job in a way that gives taxpayers their money’s worth.

In the final analysis, Edmiston did his country honor by fulfilling his commitment to serve it despite great disruption to his personal life. But he did Bossier citizens dishonor by failing to resign as assessor when it became clear he could not honor his commitment to them to be a full-time assessor without additional cost to taxpayers. (Even had he turned down his assessor salary while deployed the fact remains that he could not have performed by his own choice his full-time duties, depriving Bossier of a full-time assessor, which they could be expected to assume he would be if he chose to run for the office.) Private sector employers have the luxury of deciding whether to hold a job open for a deployed employee, but no officeholder who voluntarily ran for a position and knows this conflict can occur has the right to expect taxpayers and voters to be so generous.

That reason alone should have disqualified him in the minds of voters from earning their votes. Yet he scored a bigger margin of victory over Siem than Henington did over Alexander. Whether many voters knew about Edmiston’s double dip or it was more they didn’t care is unknown, but we do know it seems not to have played a significant role in the contest. Which perhaps we should expect when so few people pay any more than cursory attention to contests for this office.

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