New Orleans City Hall

New Orleans City Hall.

If it is true that “our city's culture is on the line,” maybe it will be no great loss.

Let's make sure we have a working brain before we fret about such airy fairy concepts as culture.

The notion that ours is on the line comes from the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, a supposedly respectable advocate for reasonably priced accommodation for the masses which turns out to have no clue how property taxes are calculated.

The alliance is in a tizzy right now because the latest quadrennial reassessment of all real estate in the city is way up, presaging property tax increases of proportionate size. The group suggests, in a news release, that the New Orleans City Council reject Assessor Erroll Williams' latest numbers out of hand. Its petition, calling on the council to “kick the assessments back to the assessor's office,” has attracted more than 1,000 signatures. Perhaps it takes a truly stupid idea to gain such a following.

Rejecting the new assessments, once they withstood any legal challenges, is not an option open to the council. Williams is legally required at least once every four years to ensure that all real estate in the city is assessed at fair market value, and that's it. He has no say in setting tax rates; that's the job of councils, school boards, sheriffs and other recipients of property tax revenues.

It may be, as the alliance warns in its news release, that "with rising interest rates, insurance costs, and the potential for increased property taxes, a perfect storm is forming that will push people out of their homes and lead to mass displacement of long-term residents."

If that is what the future holds — and it might be foolhardy to bet against it — there will be much weeping and wailing, but it would be grossly unfair to make Williams the scapegoat. He has done no more than present us with the facts, unpalatable though they are.

Williams is no stranger to being blamed for events beyond his control — that is one of the downsides of holding public office — and perhaps regular citizens cannot be faulted for failing to understand that the official responsible for deciding how much your taxable property is worth is not the same official who decides how much you owe.

For the housing group not to understand the assessor's role in the property tax system, however, is unforgivable. The alliance, described by the newspaper as “the most promising advocacy group” on the local housing front, practically enjoys official status. Its advice is much sought after and valued.

When it advises people to greet Williams' latest assessments by burying their heads in the sand, it greatly advances the cause of ignorance. We are entitled to expect a greater level of curiosity from such a promising advocacy group.

The group's advice, which seems to be that we simply repudiate Williams's latest research, is not only unwise but dangerous. It could quite possibly incite a mass refusal to pay legitimate taxes, which could only mean chaos and, maybe, cash flow problems in the long run.

This was not the alliance's finest hour, whether or not the city culture is on the line.

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