I have discussed the travails of home purchase before, and how the local, state and federal governments can create grievous financial, emotional, and physical damage to those who attempt the ownership Dream, but it seems that I have just recently reached another bureaucratic watermark. I wish to share it widely, as it seems to happen, and apply, in almost every geographic area worldwide in one way or another: government of a piece of land and the private ownership of the same land often collide.
The stimulus for such a report is simple. I finally had to deal with the ongoing giant increases in city appraisals of my home. I paid off the house a couple of years ago, but now find myself in a position of having to fork out almost six hundred dollars a month in combined tax and insurance to continue living in a property I already own.
It is getting worse, the taxation especially, but I as an essentially lazy person have been letting it slide over these last seven years, considering it part of paying Katrina dues. I want to stay here in New Orleans, no matter the hassle. But the notice of increase I received two weeks ago was crazy high, and with an available time window for contesting the increase of only 1-15 August, at the last minute I decided to fight back.
Every structure in the City has been reappraised yet again this year to supposedly finally get the City of New Orleans in line with taxation in the rest of the Real World. In 2006, the year after the devastating storm, my property tax went from $78 a year to more than $2,300 annually. And my insurance doubled. At that point my neighbors and I all mused that it truly seemed that both Government and Big Business wanted us to leave, get out of town and leave our homes for good. One and all we bit the bullet and paid. Like I said, we wanted to stay.
But now in 2012 the municipal vultures are back and want more, much more.
Some things are slightly different with the process this year, and the officials responsible are considered somewhat more trustworthy. At least voters here in New Orleans have finally voted out the tax fiefdoms. For what seems forever, this city has actually had seven different and very independent assessors in place in charge of seven different areas of the City. The not-so-unknown standard was that each could use his/her job as leverage to get whatever they wanted personally in life. “You don’t want your appraisal to go up a thousand bucks, do you, sir, so you do probably want to donate $500 to my re-election campaign. Much cheaper. Though of course I didn’t say that.” And thus, once elected, a New Orleans assessor’s position was a lifetime gig.
From that point on, most would consider the public trust as their own personal plunder, and an easy source of ever-increasing revenue. One assessor was Betty Jefferson, the now-convicted-crook sister of the now-convicted-crook US Representative William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson. Betty was convicted of milking charitable institutions she set up herself after the storm. She was hitting up individuals, the Feds and State for donations to help disadvantaged residents, and then keeping all the cash to maintain her own affluent lifestyle. Assessor Jefferson actually displayed less scruples than her vaunted brother, though the plundering mindset seems to run in the family. At this point half a dozen Jeffersons, the majority of whom were in one public office or another, have been convicted and jailed for raping the people they were supposed to be helping. Betty Jefferson’s daughter also was convicted. One of Dollar Bill’s brothers, Mose Jefferson, just died this year in prison after only two years’ in lock-up, and Mose’s girlfriend, a former Councilperson, was also put away for the same sort of malevolent fraud. Another brother, convicted multiple times of theft and violence, in now under the net of a murder investigation. The Representative is himself just starting a thirteen-year sentence, though Betty is basically serving five years of a lenient probation/house arrest, a light sentence she was given for ratting out fellow conspirators.
Betty Jefferson was one of seven assessors.
That enlarged view of what an assessor can do being said, New Orleans has come to its senses and replaced the seven mini-emperors with a single assessor. Of course, the newly-elected man on the job promptly went out and hired the same not-yet-convicted crooks back as his assistants. Except for Betty Jefferson, though she held onto her position until the very last minute, and refused to resign until literally forced to by the Federal government. This is New Orleans, after all, and justice, Banana Republic style or no, will prevail.
So back to my personal point of reference: I was prepared to go down to the Assessor’s office and appeal the new higher appraisal on my home. Anchors on the local Evening News warned all last week that residents should have lots of corroborating paperwork, documentation photos, and comparisons with other property prices from the neighborhood in hand. And that they should bring patience. Lots of patience. Go early and be prepared to wait, they instructed. And wait. And wait.
So I went last week, on Friday the tenth nearing the deadline, and indeed it was a madhouse down there.
But me, I was more than prepared. And for that I was immediately sent into a special no-wait line, and awarded a personal counselor. All this actually occurred because, while I was perusing the re-appraisal notice, I stumbled on an obscure sentence in an even more obscure paragraph hidden at the bottom of the page, completely engulfed by bold-faced procedures for appeal.
This sentence explained that there is a way to “freeze” your appraisal/assessment. It seems that the rules allow that when any one owner in the house hits 65, the property is eligible to have the assessment frozen at the same amount. Forever.
I turned 65 less than a week before the 1 AUG 2012 cut off. Magic.
There is also a requirement that the combined adjusted gross income per household, acquired from tax statements, must be below a certain maximum to get the freeze. We poor elderly folks can’t be allowed to make too much money, for our house’s sake. But when I added up my partner’s and my “adjusted gross incomes”, the total came out to be $168.00 under the maximum. Incredible. A benevolent sign from governmental gods.
Consequently last Friday, just after reading the notice, I copied the first pages of both our tax returns, copied my driver’s license, and went scrambling down there to City Hall. It was bedlam. Hundreds, if not thousands of people were milling about the two massive halls carrying wads of paper and files. Each was handed a number and told to stand about the room within hearing distance until called. No one was happy, about the assessments, the process, the prospective hours-long wait. My stomach dropped when I walked in the door and saw the grumbling herds. I was going to be there all day in very nasty and negative circumstances. Everyone was aggrieved and being vocal about that state.
But then as I came through the turnstile into the human corral to get my own number, a very congenial female city employee walked up to me and asked what part of the process I wanted.
I said the magic word: “freeze”.
“Ah, no problem. No wait for the freeze evaluation,” and she took me to an unruffled and kind-faced gentleman seated alone at a desk in an open cubicle.
The woman said, “Robert, this is Mister uhhh (she hadn’t asked my name, but now didn’t need to)… this uhhh gentleman wants to apply for an assessment freeze.” And she left. Without giving me a number.
Robert – my new best friend -- asked the property address, punched it into the computer. There was a minimal screen flash and the word “Aha!” from his lips. He said he would need my driver’s license, and the tax returns of each of the owners. I handed all three documents to him, copied and prepared in advance.
And sure enough, in less than fifteen minutes I was out of the building, my house assessment frozen to this year’s level in perpetuity. Even the vastly higher appraisal they had sent me for 2013 is now moot. It is not going to rise. Ever. Again.
As I write this, today is the last day to get re-appraised, 15 August. The situation is dire at the Assessor’s office. But I am safely home and daydreaming about the large chunk of cash I will not have to give to the City next year. It seems they are getting so much from the re-assessments that the City will actually have a cash surplus. They will not be getting it from me.
Yes, I am old, but what the hey. I am healthy. Can still tie my own shoes and make childish and lewd, un-PC comments. I am still capable of committing absolutely pre-pubescent life errors.
It now costs me only forty cents to ride the buses and streetcars to any destination in town. And my property tax, while not easy to deal with, won’t get nastier in the future.
I am no longer at the mercy of an assessor, seven or single.
It is not often that you get a chance to feel good about being ancient, but I am enjoying this one.
In the process of all this, I have reaffirmed that entities larger than me often are going to act like they have dominion over my personal spot on this planet, but just as inevitably in the process they will have to first acknowledge that I am indeed a person.
And that reassessment is a well-spring of power.