GONZALES — In 2013, Ascension Parish Assessor M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. convinced the parish’s taxing districts one by one to chip in and pay for aerial mapping that produced detailed images of the entire parish.
The effort, in 2014, uncovered 6,000 property improvements that had not been on the tax rolls and yielded $18.1 million combined in new, annual taxes for the School Board, sheriff, library, parish government and other entities that collect property taxes.
Presented primarily as a way to improve his office when the first-term assessor took office in 2013, the aerial imagery is now something the assessor wants to do every few years in a bid to keep up with continued growth.
Chief Deputy Assessor Justin Champlin said that while the project originally aimed at finding a backlog of property not on the rolls, the new data, which is heavily used by Smiley’s office, also has been used by other parish government bodies for a variety of other purposes.
“So it’s become kind of entrenched, especially with parish planning and zoning and building. They all have grabbed hold of it and made use of it,” Champlin said in an interview Monday afternoon.
Champlin tried to make that same case over the data’s broad utility Monday night, but the Ascension Parish Council wasn’t ready to sign off on the deal without some assurance that other local governmental bodies also are on board.
Champlin is seeking perpetual power of attorney from the council so the assessor could engage in contracting for the aerial work and set in motion flights every three years. The cost for the next round, in the winter of 2017, would be $173,000 shared by all the taxing bodies.
“Ultimately, we’re requesting this to be formally set up in a way that will simplify what needs to be done, so the council can focus on other issues,” Champlin told the Parish Council Finance Committee on Monday night.
“I realize it’s something different and unique and, you know, it may throw some of you off, but this is a way to help keep Ascension Parish moving in the right direction.”
While the council would be able to review the costs before each round of flights and wouldn’t be locked into doing them, under state law, Champlin said, the council could vote to approve the agreement and commit all the parish’s local taxing jurisdictions to pay their pro rata share for the aerial imagery out of their property tax collections.
“You said that what you want us to vote on tonight is to give you authority to do this and that we will be speaking for every entity in the parish that (collects) taxes — the Sheriff’s Office, the School Board, everybody,” Council Chairman Randy Clouatre asked Champlin.
Champlin confirmed it was.
Clouatre then asked Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. if the proposal is legal. Parenton said it is.
Champlin pointed out that several parishes already employ similar agreements. He also added that the Ascension Parish School Board already has prepared to budget $101,000 for its share of the expense in 2017 and suggested the sheriff and other entities generally knew the proposal could be an outgrowth of the initial round of flights.
But other council members chimed in with their unease over the deal without first hearing from other local officials. “I’ll be honest. I’m uncomfortable,” Councilman Bill Dawson said.
Soon enough, Champlin agreed to withdraw the proposal for the time being.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Teri Casso asked Champlin to come back with communication from the Sheriff’s Office and other local officials saying they agree with the plan.
Parish President Kenny Matassa said he has been planning to meet with Sheriff Jeff Wiley on a variety of issues and will include discussion of the assessor’s plan.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.