St. Tammany Parish Assessor Louis Fitzmorris describes himself as a reformer who’s still working to straighten out the mess left by former Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core, but challenger Chip Bankston says the new assessor lacks a key quality of his predecessor: accessibility.
Fitzmorris defeated Core, a five-term incumbent, in 2011 amid news stories about credit card abuse. But Core was still in office during the most recent reassessment year, 2012, and Fitzmorris said he found assessments were “all over the place’’ when he took over the job.
He also learned that the FBI was conducting an investigation of the office under Core, he said.
During his time on the job, Fitzmorris said, he has overseen the inspection of thousands of properties, resulting in the removal of unwarranted homestead and land-use exemptions.
Bankston, a lawyer whose practice focuses on real estate, said inequities in assessments persist. He decided to run a full year ago, he said, partly because he couldn’t get an appointment with Fitzmorris to discuss his own assessment.
While the election is Saturday, the assessor’s term will not begin until 2017, which means Fitzmorris will be in office for the 2016 reassessment.
Core remains a presence in the race. She showed up at a recent forum held at Abita Town Hall, throwing pointed questions at Fitzmorris about personnel changes he made at the Assessor’s Office. That touched off a heated exchange between Core and Sheri Campbell, director of public and intergovernmental relations for the office.
Fitzmorris has charged that Core persuaded Bankston to run against him. Bankston says he knows Core but denies that she prompted his run for office. But he says he’s not turning down any help, including from Core and her friends.
Fitzmorris, 52, who does not belong to a political party, is campaigning as a proven leader who, as a former mayor of Abita Springs and former business owner, oversaw multimillion-dollar budgets and large numbers of employees. As assessor, he said, he has improved customer service and professionalism and cut waste by reducing staff and eliminating take-home cars.
In trying to improve technology at the office, Fitzmorris said, he experienced “sticker shock,’’ finding that new software would cost from $300,000 to more than $1 million. But with a reassessment year looming, he said, his main focus has been on making sure that the information in the system is accurate.
He doesn’t anticipate a flood of unhappy property owners after the 2016 reassessment, he said. He blamed some of the problems stemming from the 2012 reassessment on his predecessor’s failure to handle reviews in a timely way.
Bankston, a 54-year-old Republican, points to what he describes as a superior education and his 27 years as an attorney as reasons he is the better qualified candidate. He plans to give up his law practice to be a full-time assessor. He calls himself a fiscally conservative and favors term limits.
As assessor, he said, he would hire qualified people and make sure that the chief deputy assessor is a certified appraiser. He criticized Fitzmorris for hiring “friends from Abita’’ and also is critical of the office’s technology, which he said has not been updated even though Core left money for that purpose.
“I’m going to be accessible,’’ he said. “Citizens will be able to come in and talk to me.’’
He’s also concerned about what he sees as sudden steep increases in assessments that he thinks should be made more gradual so families and businesses can plan their budgets.
Bankston faced an early challenge to his residency by Mandeville lawyer Matthew Monson, who said the candidate had not lived in St. Tammany for the required two years. Monson dropped the challenge shortly before court arguments were to begin. Bankston insists he is a St. Tammany Parish resident.
The incumbent has significantly more money in his campaign fund than the challenger. Campaign finance reports show that Fitzmorris received nearly $52,000 in donations from Jan. 1 through Oct. 4 and had $25,000 in the till to start. After spending just over $20,000, he had about $57,000 still on hand.
Bankston’s reports show that he’s received a $10,000 loan from Virginia Bankston and has put $636 of his own money into the race. He received two donations totaling $7,000 and has spent just under $60,000. As of Oct. 4, Bankston had a little more than $5,000 still on hand.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.