Published March 17, 2006
NEW ORLEANS – As part of a post-Katrina movement to streamline New Orleans' government, candidates for each of the city's seven tax assessor positions are running on a platform of eventually doing away with the jobs they are seeking.
Each has adopted the same nickname — "I.Q." for "I Quit" — to drive home the point on the April 22 ballot. But that plan has run afoul of two judges, who ruled this week that the ballot cannot be used as a political billboard.
Each candidate is promising to use the assessor's annual salary and expenses, estimated at about $90,000 each, to hire a private firm to do assessments. Meanwhile, they would work to consolidate the seven assessors' offices into one.
"I think it's the only time in the history of New Orleans that we can really make a change. If we don't do it now, I think it'll never happen," real estate agent Ron Mazier — running as Ron "I.Q." Mazier — said Wednesday.
Shaun B. Rafferty, an attorney supporting the movement, said the nickname on the ballot constitutes information, not a slogan, and that the judges' rulings would be appealed.
"The decision is not so much which candidates you want — the decision is whether you want any assessors at all," said Rafferty. "That's why we want this nickname."
Two judges, ruling in separate lawsuits, disagreed. One ruled against Mazier, who is challenging incumbent Algiers neighborhood assessor Tom Arnold; the other against Chase "I.Q." Jones, running against incumbent Betty Jefferson.
Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, sister-in-law of Betty Jefferson, was the judge in the Mazier case. She ruled that the "I.Q" name was "done solely to alert voters that defendant Mr. Mazier is a member of a political action group." Her ruling was similar to an earlier one by Judge Piper Griffin, who ruled against the "I.Q." on the ballot in Jones' race. The other five races are not affected, Rafferty said.
Around Louisiana, critics have long complained that New Orleans city government is bloated with duplicative offices and top-heavy with elected officials, including two sheriffs and the seven tax assessors. The rest of Louisiana has one assessor per parish, the state's equivalent of a county.
After Katrina devastated the city on Aug. 29, reform movements blossomed, with supporters reasoning that efforts to run the city more efficiently would bolster entreaties for state and federal aid.
Some have zeroed in on the assessors, saying property tax valuations vary widely, and unfairly, from district to district.
In January, a government watchdog group called the Bureau of Governmental Research noted that assessors' response to Hurricane Katrina also varied wildly. In four districts, property that escaped flooding kept the same assessment — but in the other three districts, 2005 assessments were cut by as much as 50 percent.
First District Assessor Darren Mire said the I.Q. agenda is interesting and well-intentioned, but not well thought-out. The assessors' offices are underfunded to start with, and the salaries would not be near the amount needed to hire a professional firm, he said.
Mire said the seven current assessors took bids on citywide assessment. "The low bid was $7 million," he said. "Our salaries and benefits only make up $700,000."
Gov. Kathleen Blanco tried to merge the assessors' offices in a special legislative session after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the bill failed in a committee that includes relatives of two New Orleans assessors.
Another effort is expected in a session that begins March 27 and runs through mid-June. Supporters hope election of the "I.Q." ticket in April will help their chances.
The nickname strategy has been tried before, with little success. In what became a sideshow to the 1979 governor's race, the Secretary of State refused to let Luther Devine Knox onto the ballot as L.D. "None of the Above" Knox. Knox then legally changed his name, but a court said he did so too late.