GONZALES — The race for Ascension Parish assessor has taken a rough and tumble turn the past several weeks as the two-term incumbent and her challenger have battled to establish in voters’ minds who would more fairly determine property values.
Assessor Renee Mire Michel, a Democrat and an heir to the Mire family political legacy, is facing in the Oct. 22 primary M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. He is a Republican state legislator whom Gov. Bobby Jindal has endorsed for parish assessor.
Smiley has come out swinging, accusing Michel of leaving at least 10 percent of properties off the rolls and cutting deals on assessments for her friends and relatives. He said, if elected, he wants the office to visit all 50,000 parcels to complete a new parishwide reassessment.
Michel, daughter of former Assessor Pegram Mire Sr. and an employee of the Assessor’s Office for 30 years, has countered that Smiley’s attacks against her are unsubstantiated and underscore his lack of experience.
Earlier this week during a forum at the Pelican Point subdivision clubhouse, Michel and Smiley traded some of their sharpest exchanges yet.
“I will always be on the taxpayers’ side,” Smiley said. “My opponent has been there quite a few years and looks like she has been on the side of government. Do we need government? Yes, we do. But guess what, folks? I’m on your side.”
Michel took the lectern right after Smiley.
“My opponent’s false claims, bogus assertions and empty promises are the kind of win-at-all-costs politics that I have kept out of the Assessor’s Office,” Michel said.
“It is very important to keep politics out of the Assessor’s Office.”
Smiley, who gave up a chance to seek election to a third term in the state House of Representatives to run for assessor, has said dissatisfied business owners and residents asked him to enter the race. They are concerned, he said, that Michel has not accounted for the post-Katrina drop in property values after the 2008 reassessment.
One hotbed generating concerns over alleged excessive assessments is Pelican Point in Burnside, where Smiley has claimed values were as much as 30 percent too high.
Curt Rice, 64, who has lived in Pelican Point since 2004, said in an interview that he and his neighbors are concerned about high assessments as they watch sales prices in the subdivision newsletter. He said his assessment should be lower despite a recent reduction.
“I just feel something better could be done,” Rice said.
Michel countered that the Louisiana Tax Commission, which monitors assessments turned in by parish assessors, analyzed Pelican Point values after the 2008 reassessment, but found no grounds to cut assessments.
She said her analyses of sales in 2009 and 2010 has allowed her to cut assessments this year in Pelican Point and 14 other subdivisions in Ascension Parish.
Values for many vacant lots were cut, but the largest homes also saw reductions of up to 20 percent, Michel said.
She told the Pelican Point clubhouse audience on Monday that lower assessments were sitting on her desk as she hesitated to apply them this year because doing so would likely be seen as election-year politics.
“But I would not do that to you because you deserve to be assessed fairly,” she said.
Smiley argued that making the reductions this year amounted to no more than “an election-year ploy. She would not have done it if Mert Smiley had not been running against her.”
Despite concerns in the parish about overvalued homes, the state Tax Commission has found otherwise. The commission provided 2009 and 2010 analyses of Michel’s 2008 reassessment. The annual analyses are called “ratio studies.”
These studies, which compare a sample of property assessments with their market prices, showed her assessments are slightly below the median market price or matched it exactly.
Charles Abels, Tax Commission administrator, said Michel’s assessments have been uniform and accurate.
“In the last four years, we have found she has been in compliance with her ratio study,” Abels said.
Smiley challenged the commission findings, providing records on 11 assessments he has found that he says are undervalued. Some are owned by Michel’s friends or relatives, subsequent records checks show.
For at least four, Michel acknowledged the low assessments are on individual acreages or lots that her office has not updated.
Michel said her office has been applying a new computerized mass appraisal system during the past three years and has focused on new sales and on subdivisions because they are easier to classify than widely varying individual lots.
Michel challenged other examples Smiley offered as being unequal comparisons or reflecting delays related to changes in property status that don’t show up until revised assessments are placed on the rolls.