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Friday, 25 March 2011 09:58
Focus: Al Leone, Candidate for Jefferson Parish Assessor
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Christopher TidmoreMost Jefferson Parish voters have known only one name as their Assessor for the last fifty years--the father and son team called Lawrence Chehardy.  When the son resigned, retiring late last year, a four candidate scramble began to succeed him at the Assessor's office. 

    Thomas Capella dropped out of a bid for Parish President to seek the chief “valuer” of property in Jefferson.   Skip Galan, the former Kenner Councilman and convicted felon, filed for the job from his residence in Ponchatula.  Mary Chehardy, Lawrence's Aunt and a perennial candidate, filed for the job, despite her nephew's decision to support someone else.

      Real Estate Agent Al Leone, who had nearly forced sitting Parish President Aaron Broussard into a runoff in 2007, also decided to run Parishwide once more in the April 2 Special Election.   As he explained to The Louisiana Weekly and Bayoubuzz.com, "I am uniquely qualified to become the next Assessor in Jefferson Parish because, as a Real Estate Professional and as the 4th Generation of Real Estate Professionals in my family, I know real estate."

     "The primary role of the Assessor is to accurately and uniformly assess property," he continued, "both real estate and business property. I work with Parish Assessors, property appraisers, mortgage professionals, title attorneys, and other real estate professionals on a daily basis."

     Using that experience, Leone explained that his office will be open to the public as no other Assessor has managed in years.   "I will improve transparency and communication by allowing property owners to view assessments at the block and neighborhood level. Currently, you can only view assessments one property at a time."

      "Also, as a full-time Assessor, I will have an open door policy with property owners and my staff and I will be available to them to discuss their assessments throughout the year, not just during a two-week period."  

       Leone has gone so far as to "self-impose term limits on myself and not serve more than 3 terms."

      He also pledged to cut the pay of the Assessor by 20%, has sought to get the new Jefferson Parish Inspector General to have oversight of the Assessor’s Office, and to modernize the Assessor’s Office so that the Planning Department and Assessor’s Office computers can communicate.  The candidate has also endeavored to link all Parish Assessor’s statewide to eliminate Homestead Exemption fraud and would allow property owners to view assessments at the block and neighborhood level, right on the internet.  

      If elected assessor, Leone promises a major rationalization in the staff structure. The lines of authority should be simple with "A Chief Deputy Assessor responsible for overall operations within the departments; Two Deputy Assessors, one responsible for each bank of the parish; and the staff".

      Moreover, he added, "I will seek to hire the best property appraisers possible and provide them with ongoing training available through the Louisiana Assessors’ Association and other training opportunities."

       "We will continue current practices and modernize them. We will evaluate comparable sales and use up-to-date real estate transaction data. The appeals process will be based upon recommendations from the Deputy Assessors and all appeals and property assessments will be fairly handled without regard to who the property owner is or what their political affiliations are."

      Key to the process of transparency, in Leone's view, is for information to cross parish lines.  Ending the balkanization of Assessor's offices, at least by mainframe and internet, is key to providing an accurate picture of property values--and whether someone is gaming the system and claiming more than one $75,000 break in their taxes. 

       "I will work with Assessors in other parishes to link our computers so that a property owner can only receive one homestead exemption. Currently, we can check that at the parish-level but not across parish lines. Theoretically, because our computers do not communicate with each other, a person can receive a homestead exemption in Jefferson Parish and other parishes. I will work with other Assessors to eliminate this opportunity for fraud."

     Thanks to inflation, Leone worries that more and more disadvantaged people are being pushed onto the tax rolls.  As such, he pledged to lobby the legislature to correct the problem. "I believe that the Homestead Exemption should be raised based upon regular increases of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Typically, home values have increased by 3% per year, although last year median home prices declined in value. The Homestead Exemption has not been increased for 30 years and I will work with other parish assessors and the state legislature to have the Homestead Exemption increased via the CPI."

       In fact, stealth tax increases on homeowners is a major issue for Leone.   As Assessor, he pledged to support a state law requiring a public vote before milliages could be rolled forward after being rolled back.  "I would favor either a parish-wide or statewide rule regarding millages being rolled forward. Governments should cut spending before attempting to raise or roll forward taxes."   Rolling forward millages has been a favored method to enact revenue increases without a public referendum.

      Leone is particularly concerned with giving opportunities to minorities, particularly Jefferson's 33% African-American population.  One of those areas is to hire apprentice appraisers, and help with their licensure.  "We will provide every possible training opportunity to ensure that the staff of the Assessor’s Office is able to produce accurate valuations."

       "This is a way that young people, particularly young African-Americans, can become licensed appraisers, eventually starting their own businesses.   Also, I want to do specific outreach to the Black Community, having an outreach director that reports directly to the Assessor."  That individual, likely an African-American with long experience working the Jefferson Parish minority groups, will be charged with building bridges to the Black Community.  

       Leone argued that his major justification for running is the reality that as homes are reassessed next year, no one but him has talked about the fact that Jefferson Property values have fallen on average 6%.  That should shield many homes from a tax increase via higher home values.  As the candidate outlined, "As a Real Estate Professional, I understand that property value can increase or decrease rapidly. Other area homes are purchased and those sales can affect your property’s value. Any significant increase needs to be staggered so that property owners aren’t unfairly overburdened by property taxes."

       Leone says that he understands the struggles that most Jeffersoninas, white and black, are enduring, from his own family story. "My great-grandfather came to New Orleans from Sicily. He saved his money and invested in real estate. My grandfather and my father also invested in real estate and taught me the value of hard work, community service and achieving your goals. Those values have helped make me who I am."

The election is this Saturday, April 2nd..

This is the first in a series of profiles of the candidates for Jefferson Parish Assessor.

Christopher Tidmore is on the radio on WSLA 1560 AM from 7-8 AM Weekdays, and on other radio stations around the state, online and archived at www.gtmorning.com. 


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