GONZALES — Ascension Parish Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. is hinging his re-election bid this fall on his office’s modernization efforts over the past three years that have boosted the tax rolls and local government tax coffers.
Smiley said he has improved the office’s use of technology and its Web presence, and added thousands of previously unassessed property improvements to the rolls, boosting revenue for local governments by $18.1 million without an increase in taxes.
But the aerial imagery program that found 6,000 improvements to property that had not been assessed has drawn some election-time criticism from challenger and Prairieville lawyer Paulette Porter LaBostrie.
LaBostrie says the landowners who have to pay the additional taxes on their improvements, which she calls a “tax increase,” are not happy about it. She also said some residents have been unfairly given a break on their property assessment, meaning they’ve had to pay less taxes, but she provided no specific examples.
While LaBostrie questions the one-term assessor’s tax record, she, her husband, her son and another family member have been embroiled in a two-year legal dispute over unpaid Iberville Parish property taxes on an ancestral family home in St. Gabriel that has been listed as LaBostrie’s business address since 2004.
LaBostrie, who lives in Prairieville and is up to date on her Ascension taxes, disputes the claims of a Nebraska company that won ownership of the old family home this month in court after paying the back taxes in 2009.
“What I had to say about that is, ‘I pay my taxes,’ ” Smiley said of the dispute.
The two Republicans are the only candidates running for assessor on the Oct. 24 primary ballot.
The assessor is responsible for determining the market value of land, homes, businesses and other property for taxation. Assessors do not set property tax rates nor collect them. Local governments levy property taxes, and sheriff’s offices collect them.
Smiley’s effort to bring more properties onto the rolls was recognized in September with a Distinguished Assessment Jurisdiction Award from the International Association of Assessing Officers. His office is the state’s first and only to receive the award, his office said.
“In just two years and eight months, we’ve turned the office around tremendously, and I want to continue,” Smiley said of his re-election bid.
He defeated then two-term incumbent and Democrat Renee Mire Michel in a close, tough election in October 2011, in which he accused Michel of playing favorites and leaving properties off the rolls.
The aerial imagery program was an outgrowth of the 2011 campaign. Following the 14-month transition as assessor-elect mandated by law, Smiley persuaded the parish’s various taxing jurisdictions in 2013 to contribute toward the $400,000 cost of hiring an aerial imaging company.
The combination of detailed imaging and the creation of 40,000 sketches from those images by another company allowed his office to put the missing improvements on the books, which represented about 15 percent of the tax roll, Smiley said.
In addition to the aerial program, he said his office found and eliminated 3,000 multiple homestead exemptions, brought $61 million in market value for Sorrento salt dome caverns to the rolls without litigation and improved data collection from city and parish permitting departments.
LaBostrie, whose work as a lawyer includes real estate law and representing the poor in pro bono consumer protection cases, said residents are unhappy about their assessments and their taxes.
“Some people got tax breaks and some people didn’t, and the Prairieville area got hit the hardest or so it seems,” LaBostrie said.
She described general discontent among her neighbors and others with all levels of parish government.
LaBostrie said she told residents that some of their concerns should be directed to parish government but claimed the unhappiness is also with Smiley.
“They are very angry at the way the parish is being run by the same people over and over again and nothing’s getting done. Nothing seems to get better except more taxes,” she said.
LaBostrie did not specify instances of inequitable assessments but said if she were elected, she would look into it.
She is not trained as an assessor, but LaBostrie said she does her own real estate abstracting and has experience as a manager in past jobs at the Jackson campus of the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System and at Louisiana State Employees’ Retirement System.
As far as LaBostrie’s own property tax problems, an 18th Judicial District judge awarded on Oct. 6 to Adair Assets Management 100 percent ownership of a house at 5905 La. 74, St. Gabriel.
The company bought the family home, which had been in her side of the family, LaBostrie said, in a May 2009 tax sale for $1,110.94 in taxes, costs and interest. The three-year period for the owners to pay the unpaid taxes has since passed.
LaBostrie, who has unsuccessfully sought to annul the tax sale that she says she was never informed about, said a relative was responsible for the taxes while the relative lived in the home under an unrecorded lease-purchase agreement. The relative paid city taxes but mistakenly did not pay the parish taxes, LaBostrie said.
She said she did not find out until Adair sued for clear title in early 2013.
“The ball was being hidden from us, so we didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
LaBostrie said she and her husband bought the family home in 1999 to prevent it from going into foreclosure. But LaBostrie said she recently hired a lawyer and learned the purchase, done under a contract known as a bond for deed, was not completed. She said the house was never hers and argued she and her husband did not owe the taxes.
LaBostrie has not prevailed in court with these and other arguments. She plans to appeal the latest ruling.
Smiley disagreed with LaBostrie, saying he has not seen a backlash over his imaging effort. He said voters can see he is committed to treating everyone fairly because he has “complete transparency” through his website and other public data.
Smiley’s chief deputy, Justin Champlin, said during a forum last month in Geismar that the aerial imagery program generated more than $10.3 million for schools, $2.9 million for parish government and $2.4 million for law enforcement, among others.
He said the School Board gave employees a 3 percent raise last year, the first for all workers in 12 years.
Smiley also disputed that 2015 brought a large increase in assessments. Taxable assessed value increased almost 4 percent to nearly $1.2 billion, but increases were far larger in eight of the past 11 years, the Assessor’s Office says.