Roy Burns, one of four candidates running for St. Tammany Parish district attorney, likely saved thousands of dollars in property taxes by having homestead exemptions on two properties at once for more than a decade, an arrangement that Burns said was a mistake he eventually noticed himself and corrected several years ago.
Under a homestead exemption, the first $75,000 in a home’s value is not subject to some property taxes. But Louisiana allows only one exemption per property owner.
Burns has a homestead exemption on a house valued at $211,000 on Mill Creek Road in Bush, where he lives. He applied for that exemption on Nov. 18, 1997, according to records provided by the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office, and he has had an exemption on the property ever since.
But the exemption on his previous home, a property on Trinchard Road in Covington now valued at $180,000, remained in place through 2009. So the two exemptions overlapped for about 11 years, according to Assessor’s Office records.
Burns said he discovered the situation when reviewing his tax bill and went to the Assessor’s Office of his own accord to correct what he characterized as an error. He said he went to the counter clerk and did not speak to the assessor.
Burns has not had to pay any back taxes, however. A property transfer form the office dated Feb. 12, 2010, has a handwritten notation on it that says, “Roy called & asked that this be removed for 2010 since he moved in 2009.”
Burns actually moved in 1998. Asked about the time frame mentioned in the note, he said, “I’m not going to speculate about why they put that on there.” He also said he would not speculate about what he said to the clerk in 2010.
Burns said he has always paid every tax bill that he received and that the Assessor’s Office never sent him a bill for any back taxes.
Sheri Campbell, a spokeswoman for Assessor Louis Fitzmorris, said state law allows assessors to apply retroactive taxes going back only three years.
Assessor’s Office records show the homestead exemption on Burns’ previous home made a substantial difference in his tax bill. After the exemption was lifted in 2010, it went from $335 to $1,449.
A third property with a homestead exemption shows up on the tax rolls under Roy K. Burns Jr. It is on La. 21, and Burns said it is the family home that his grandfather bought in 1939. It has an assessed value of $383,000.
Burns said he is one of a number of heirs who are part-owners of the house. But he said his elderly uncle, Harold Burns, lives in the home and has done so his entire life, so the exemption is valid.
According to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, which serves as the tax collector for the parish, the name on the rolls for that property has been listed as Roy Keith Burns Jr. since 2006, and the 2013 payment came from the “Phillip Burns Rental Acct.”
Campbell said the La. 21 property appears to be family inherited property. It has had a homestead exemption since 1968, and there is no application on file to suggest that the family asked to receive the exemption, she said.
“It pops up in our system in Mr. Burns’ name because the most recent transaction was a transfer to him during a succession, but it actually appears to be shared ownership by many family members,” she said in an email.
Campbell said Fitzmorris has ended the practice of transferring homestead exemptions from one owner to the next without requiring new owners to apply, something that was allowed to happen under his predecessor, Patricia Schwarz Core.
Fitzmorris has removed more than 1,000 ineligible homestead exemptions since taking office and has his office investigate all tips received about them, Campbell said.
She said the office will investigate the exemption on the La. 21 property and will need to verify the explanation offered by Burns.
Burns is running against Alan Black, Warren Montgomery and Brian Trainor to succeed Walter Reed as DA for the 22nd Judicial District. Reed, who chose not to seek a sixth term, is under investigation by a federal grand jury, and candidates in the hotly contested race have hammered on themes of personal integrity and ethics. Burns in particular has blasted Reed, saying that he wants to put an end to an era of special treatment for the politically connected.
Burns said he does not view the homestead exemption as an issue in the race. “I did not do anything wrong,” he said.
He also said he is not the first person this has happened to, pointing to Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who from 2002 to 2004 had homestead exemptions on two properties in Slidell. WWL-TV reported in 2010 that Core, the previous assessor, discovered the dual exemptions and removed the one that was not legitimate, calling it a “pretty serious” offense. But she later said that the mistake was made by her own office. Schedler said at the time that he didn’t know about it. Burns said he didn’t know about his situation either.
Burns said that while there was criticism in the past that there were “special people” with the Assessor’s Office, “I am not one of them.”
Burns, 65, is a Republican and a lawyer with a private law practice. He worked as an assistant district attorney under Marion Farmer, Reed’s predecessor, and was the first candidate to declare in the DA race — even before Reed announced he was not running.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.