Louisiana Illuminator photo illustration
ALEXANDRIA — Public records available on the Rapides Parish assessor’s website show properties for some elected parish officials, including the former and current sheriff are valued so low that they pay no or what appears on first blush to be anomalously low taxes for sizable properties with many coveted amenities.
Former Sheriff William Earl Hilton’s landscaped and fenced home, for instance, sits on a one-acre residential lot surrounded by 26 agricultural acres, bordered by a gravel road named for him. Assessor Richard Ducote assigned the spread a total value of $78,620, which comes to $7,862 for tax assessment purposes. After applying a homestead exemption credit of more than $900, the parish tax bill for Hilton’s domicile and acreage totals $44.49.
That’s in addition to 103 acres of residential and agricultural property Hilton owns, for which his cumulative taxes were $651, according to the assessor’s website.
Current Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood owns a many-gabled brick home guarded by stone statuary lions with an in-ground swimming pool on a one-acre lot on a well-kept block of similarly large homes. It’s valued at $37,000 which comes to $3,700 for tax assessment purposes. After applying a homestead exemption credit of more than $450, the tax bill for Wood’s domicile and acreage totals $0; the assessment has been in place since at least 2016.
According to the Louisiana Budget Project, the median salary in Rapides Parish is $50,490, and the median home value of owner-occupied housing is $147,200. The median residential property tax bill in Rapides Parish is $432 for a home valued at $110,000, according to Tax-Rates.org.
Yet the assessor’s assigned value of Hilton’s home is less than half of the median value, and Sheriff Wood’s is less than a quarter. This would make their contributions negligible to a property tax that generated more than $15 million for the Rapides Sheriff’s Office in 2021, according to an auditor’s report. Like many other parishes, the sheriff’s office is tasked with collecting taxes in Rapides.
In 2019, KALB reported that Hilton earned a little over $160,000. Wood, the current sheriff, earns a little over $170,000 per year — or over three times the Rapides median salary.
‘I’m shocked that no one’s ever brought that up’
Shannon Hiss, an assessment adviser with the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO), a professional membership organization of government assessment officials, told the Illuminator that if an elected official is not exempted from paying property tax by law, then “certainly that does raise some concerns about that situation. The industry best practices says for the assessor to correct the mistake.”
According to IAAO’s Standard on Property Tax Policy, the paramount principle is fairness, and a key dimension of fairness is uniformity. “Assessment uniformity can be maintained only with frequent revaluations based on accurately described properties,” the IAAO report states.
“IAAO recommends every four to six years that an assessor and staff physically inspect every single property in a jurisdiction,” Hiss said, adding it’s best if “they put their own eyes on it to make sure that what they have recorded is a reflection of what’s physically there, so that when valuation goes on, they’ve got correct and current records.”
In Louisiana, parish assessors are required to evaluate property at least every four years.
Each valuation cycle needs a fresh start, Hiss said.
“You need to look at it currently. What the estimated value is today isn’t what it was worth 20 years ago, nor will it be what it’s worth 20 years in the future,” she said. “So each valuation cycle is its own independent thing, and that allows the assessors to catch errors or mistakes, or whatever.”
Both sheriffs’ properties have weathered the 2020 and 2016 reassessments.
“Honestly, I’m shocked that no one’s ever brought that up,” Ducote said when the Illuminator pointed out the low valuations for the sheriffs’ properties. “I’m definitely going to look into that.”
Wood and Hilton did not respond to multiple email and telephone inquiries from the Illuminator directed through RPSO Chief of Staff and Public Information Office Tommy Carnline.
There is a range of opinion about how much an in-ground pool adds to property values. A Homelight study shows that, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, an in-ground pool adds nearly $31,000 to a home’s value — up from $22,000 pre-pandemic — in the south central region of the country that includes Louisiana.
Most police jurors see low valuations
Five of the nine Rapides Parish police jurors have also received extraordinarily low assessments — not only in 2022 but over many reassessment processes.
Davron “Bubba” Moreau is serving his fifth term as police juror for District A. His brick house with attached garage on an acre in Pineville has a fenced in-ground pool and is valued by the tax assessor at $62,000. With the homestead credit, he pays no property taxes at all.
Some of Moreau’s neighbors also pay zero property taxes.
“The next door neighbor, he’s actually the same exact way. The other neighbor is the same … he also has zero, so we need to look at this whole place. Here’s another one,” Ducote said, while looking at the digitized property maps. “And I’ll bet you, these are all owners going back a long way.”
“Rick Ducote is our assessor, and he does an excellent job,” Moreau told the Illuminator. The police juror acknowledged that his assessment was zero but “with respect” declined to offer further comment.
A 2021 audit showed property taxes generated more than $30 million for the Rapides Parish Police Jury.
Hiss said claw-backs to recoup lost property taxes from low assessor valuations vary state to state, but it’s not uncommon for an assessor’s mistake to benefit the taxpayer.
“Historically, we don’t get to reclaim anything that we lost,” Hiss said about her home state of Kansas, “but moving forward it’s on the roll, and they will pay taxes.”
“The thing is, I don’t target anyone,” Ducote said. “I don’t go down the list and check and see, OK, I need to make sure all our elected officials have all these. You know, a lot of times if there’s no problem, if nobody brings it to our attention…”
The rules regarding compensation of police jurors for attendance at meetings are strict—$50 per meeting and no more than 144 meetings a year — as are prescribed maximums for expense and travel allowance reimbursements. Exemption from payment of property tax is not a benefit of holding the office.
Section 2-28 of the Rapides Parish Police Juror Code of Ethics specifies the responsibility for those occupying positions in parish government is “to set a good example.”
According to the code, it’s a matter of principle deemed incompatible with the discharge of duties for any official to accept any fee, compensation, gift, payment of expense or any other thing of economic value in circumstances which result in use of public office for private gain.
Ethics of low assessments in question
Ducote was unsure if zero or low property taxes was an issue of ethics for public officials.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “What I’ve learned over the years is that a lot of people really don’t understand property taxes. I have rarely found that people are gonna lie about it or are purposely trying to either hide. Generally, people just don’t know.
“I think it’s probably that Bubba has no idea. He thinks that I’ve got it right, and that’s just the way it is. And if it was raised to $500, he’d probably say ‘Rick, I guess you’re right, and that’s just what it’s gonna be.’ I know these people personally, and they’ve never asked me for anything.”
There are also special assessment exemptions reserved for elderly or disabled people who also have an income below a certain threshold.
“Sometimes you can’t just look at something and say, ‘Oh, OK, something’s wrong with this. You know, there might be a reason that Bubba doesn’t have an assessment. Mark [Wood] doesn’t have a reason. Definitely gonna look at this.”
One of the findings in the 2021 audit of the sheriff’s department conducted by the accounting firm Payne, Moore & Herrington on contract for the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, was that the requirement to conduct annual employee education on the Code of Ethics had not been followed. Wood agreed to “establish a centralized system of monitoring compliance and enforce policies and procedures to ensure compliance.”
In any assessment process, there are variable factors. One is location — in town, close to town or in the countryside. Any parcel over three acres can qualify for use rates, which vary, but are less than residential.
Police Juror David A. Johnson, for instance, has what appears to be a beautiful home on five acres, one residential and four timber acres, valued for tax assessment purposes at $77,140. With the application of a homestead credit of $2,074.60, his parish tax bill was $59.20.
While Johnson’s residential acre is valued at $1,000, his four timber acres are valued together at $1,400.
“It’s not apples to apples,” Ducote said. About Johnson’s place specifically, he confirmed: “I definitely need to go look at it.”
Johnson did not respond to telephone and text inquiries as well as an attempt to reach him through the police jury’s online contact form.
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Time is another variable factor in valuations, the assessor said.
“You’re gonna have years, depending on where it is and when you bought, you can be a little higher than some, especially if it hasn’t transferred in a long time,” Ducote said.
Police Juror Craig Smith’s home is a case in point. He told the Illuminator he built his house in Deville in 1995, has done no major renovations since then, and it has remained the family home since that time. The assessor’s valuation is $93,000 resulting in a tax bill of $211.12.
Police Juror Jay Scott told the Illuminator that his father built his family’s home, and it has stayed in the family.
“It’s a basic one-story, three-bedroom house, with one and half baths,” Scott said, adding that it measures around 1,600 square feet. “It’s not a castle or a mansion.”
If the family were to sell it, Scott said he’d be surprised if they could list it at $70,000, a hunch that seems to be borne out by neighboring Zillow listings. The assessor’s valuation is $63,000 resulting in a tax bill of $0.00.
Likewise, Police Juror Theodore Fountaine III’s house is in the Acadian Village neighborhood in the Lower Third of Alexandria, which he says is in a flood zone. The assessor’s valuation is $38,000 resulting in a tax bill of $0.00.
“It’s an older neighborhood,” Fountaine said, “and unfortunately not everyone has taken care of their property. The place next door to me is empty, the family has passed and the heirs won’t sell the house but won’t keep the property up either.”
Fountaine said he sometimes has to make arrangements to cut his neighbor’s grass. “Otherwise it’s overgrown, and I can’t have that.”
Assessor audits clean, but not all encompassing
The assessor’s office is audited annually by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, which in recent years has contracted Ostreicher & Co. CPAs to conduct the audits on the Rapides Parish Assessor on their behalf.
“We’ve always had clean audits and never had any findings,” Ducote said. “It’s a small office, so it’s not too difficult.”
The audits do not, however, look for scrupulousness with respect to tax valuations of properties belonging to public officials. It’s not in their scope of examination; they’re auditing the office’s financial statement. Auditors also do not calculate the gains that could be made from reassessing from the bottom up — by looking at zero valuations or other nominal amounts.
“It’s probably not as much as you might think,” Ducote said. “I’m gonna get a few of my guys to go out next week and look at those, And I’ll probably go down that list… look at them and say, ‘Hey, we need to redo these assessments.’”
“Follow up with me but give me a few weeks,” the assessor added.
Officials with multiple properties given low assessments
Several Rapides Parish elected officials own multiple properties, and some have low valuations for tax purposes across the board, according to 2022 records from the assessor’s office.
Former Rapides Sheriff William Earl Hilton owns four additional properties in Hineston for which he was assessed in 2022:
- 2.66 residential acres valued at $3,000, for which he paid a $36.89 tax bill.
- 80 acres, comprised of one residential acre and 79 timber acres and a mobile home valued together at $17,130, for which he paid a $192.33 tax bill.
- 20 timber acres valued at $5,720, for a $63.71 tax bill.
- one residential acre and another home valued at $33,000 for a $358.27 tax bill.
Exclusive of his homestead, Hilton’s 2022 property tax bill for these additional 103-plus acres, two homes and a mobile home was $651, making his total bill for all properties $695.69
Current Sheriff Mark Wood owns an additional 3.22 agricultural acres in Boyce valued at $840, for which he paid an assessment of $10.35, making his total 2022 property tax bill $10.35.
Police Juror David A. Johnson has four additional properties in Glenmora for which he paid no taxes:
- 5 timber acres valued at $1,430.
- 9 timber acres valued at $2,570.
- 8 agricultural acres valued at $2,820.
- 1 timber acre valued at $270.
Johnson’s total 2022 property tax bill was $59.
– Frances Madeson
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