Rapides assessor adjusts some property values for elected officials; repercussions limited

State law offers little remedy for neighbors to point out low-ball numbers

By: and - May 21, 2023 6:00 am
A photo illustration of Rapides Parish Assessor Rick Ducote superimposed

Rapides Parish Assessor photo

ALEXANDRIA — Rapides Parish Assessor Rick Ducote has updated some of his numbers after the Illuminator published an investigation that revealed he assigned super low property values for multiple elected officials, resulting in minimal tax obligations — and even tax bills totaling zero in some cases. 

Sheriff Mark Wood, for example, has been billed $0 for property taxes on his own home for at least the past seven years. His predecessor and five members of Rapides Parish Police Jury have also received generous property valuations that resulted in minimal to zero tax bills, according to publicly available parish records.

But for neighbors who want to point out these errors or oversights, there are no official channels to pursue. Other than elections every four years that could replace them, state law contains negligible measures to hold accountable assessors who make gross mistakes or are perceived to show favoritism in their valuations. 

Property owners can appeal their own assessments they feel are too high through their local board of review and, if still not satisfied, to the Louisiana Tax Commission. But that’s where the options for remedy end.

“In general, the Tax Commission does not have broad police powers over the assessors,” Louisiana Tax Commission Chairman Lawrence Chehardy, who served as Jefferson Parish assessor for 34 years, said in an interview.

Any additional oversight power for the commission would have to come from a change in state law through the Louisiana Legislature. Lawmakers only have direct say-so on what assessors are paid. 

Speaking of which, only state Senate approval remains for a bill that would allow assessors to increase their pay this year and again in their next term. The increases would average out around $5,000 each, according to Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who carried the bill in his chamber for author Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette.  

Chehardy said his office contacted Ducote about the Illuminator story but would not disclose details from that discussion. 

Ducote has declined follow-up interviews since the Illuminator’s first story published May 3.

‘It’s still worth what it’s worth’

One routine practice the Tax Commission uses to catch valuation discrepancies is what Chehardy called a ratio study. Every year, commission staff select a class of property — residential, commercial or agricultural, for example — to evaluate in each parish. Parcels are chosen at random, and the commission’s valuation is compared with the assessor’s. 

“Through that process, the commission can determine whether or not an assessor is doing his or her job,” Chehardy said.

Although rural property has its own value distinctions, it can still be judged against comparable parcels, he added. It also shouldn’t matter whether the property hasn’t changed ownership over a long period as is the case with some of the elected officials’ residences in Rapides Parish.      

“The fact that that property has been in the family for a long time, it’s still worth what it’s worth,” Chehardy said. 

Assessors who follow best practices have no reason to be concerned with the Tax Commission, Chehardy said, acknowledging again that the body doesn’t have broad enforcement power. 

“It’d be good if the Tax Commission could have more authority and was able to do better and more in-depth ratio studies,” he said. “But like everybody else, the commission is confined by the reality of its budget and what it can do.”

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The home property of Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood sits on one acre in Boyce.
The home property of Rapides Parish Sheriff Mark Wood sits on one acre in Boyce. The Rapides Parish Assessor valued the property for tax purposes at $37,000, resulting in a $0.00 tax bill. (Photo by Frances Madeson)

Ducote makes some dramatic updates

Ducote’s changes to some elected officials’ property values will add tax revenue to parish coffers but might not be sufficient to alleviate concerns about inconsistencies. 

The most dramatic increase was for Sheriff Wood, whose 2023 property tax bill will increase from nothing to $1,290 instead based on a 386% increase in revised value from $37,000 to $180,000.

The assessor also updated a drastically reduced valuation for former Rapides Sheriff William Earl Hilton, whose home sits on a one-acre residential lot surrounded by 26 agricultural acres. His tax bill will be 22 times higher, up from $44.49 to $1,003, after Ducote updated his valuation from $78,620 to $156,620. 

Another sharp jump was for Police Juror David Johnson, whose tax bill will go up from $59.20 to $1,110 after a new valuation of $115,140 — a $38,000 increase from Ducote’s original figure.  

Police Juror Davron “Bubba” Moreau, who also had a $0 tax bill on a home valued at $62,000, will pay $68 for a new valuation of $80,000. Like many Louisianians, he receives a homestead exemption for his primary residence, which removes the first $75,000 from his assessment for tax purposes.  

Police Juror Craig Smith’s bill will rise from $211.12 to $628.18 on a valuation increased from $93,000 to $128,560, and Police Juror Theodore Fountaine III’s bill will increase from $93.25 to $147.24 for a valuation that’s gone up from $38,000 to $60,000. 

Johnson has not responded to questions from the Illuminator, but Moreau said Ducote has done “an excellent job” as assessor.

Smith said he has not made any renovations to his home since it was built in 1995, and Fountaine said his home is in a flood zone where some neighbors have not kept up their properties.   

Not all of the valuations for properties the officials hold were adjusted, however. 

As of Thursday, the value of Sheriff Wood’s agricultural acreage still had the same valuation of $840. 

Records for Johnson’s 23 timber and agricultural acres continue to show he is not billed anything for taxes. The assessor also did not alter the valuation for Police Juror Jay Scott’s home in Alexandria, which appears to be in alignment with neighboring listings.

Hilton, the former sheriff, will continue to pay $651 for more than 100 acres of mixed-use property where another house and a mobile home sit. 

KALB-TV reporter Alena Noakes attempts to interview Rapides Parish Assessor Rick Ducote
KALB-TV reporter Alena Noakes attempts to interview Rapides Parish Assessor Rick Ducote, who has increased some property valuations for elected officials since the Illuminator reported their assessments resulted in minimal tax bills. (KALB-TV screen capture)

Sheriffs react to report

Wood and Hilton have not responded to inquiries from the Illuminator, but both were interviewed by the Illuminator’s media partners at KALB-TV News Channel 5 in a story they aired May 16 based on the outlet’s coverage of Ducote’s low-ball values and subsequent revaluations.

KALB Reporter Alena Noakes asked Wood and Hilton if they ever asked the assessor to give them a “sweet deal” on property valuations.

“My God! Definitely not, definitely not,” Wood said with a laugh. “Rick is a straight-up, square guy just like his old boss Mr. Ralph Gill was. And no, I have not asked anybody. I’m just a guy, Ms. Alena, that’s worked hard his whole life and finally got to somewhere where, you know, me and my wife can — our children are gone — and maybe we can do some improvements to our house. No, but I’ve never asked anybody to help me with any kind of tax problems.” 

Hilton also denied he had asked Ducote or any previous assessors for favorable treatment.

“I have never, not one time, went to any assessor,” Hilton said. “Trent James, Charlie Slay, Ralph Gill or Rick Ducote, I’ve never went to them and asked for any special favor or any special tax evaluation. Never.”

Hilton was once the boss of Shannon McManus, a retired RPSO resource officer at Alexandria Senior High School who’s now a real estate agent with the George Group and also renovates and flips houses for profit. He found the low valuations Ducote made for Hilton and Wood unsettling.  

“The sheriff [Wood] had to be thinking to himself, ‘I wonder why I’m not paying any taxes on all the stuff that I have?’” McManus said. “The question you have to ask him is: ‘Are you OK with paying zero dollars? Do you think that’s fair?’ 

“It appears to look bad for him. He’s a smart man, he’s been around a long time, he knows about paying taxes. He knows, he understands, but he wasn’t going to bring it up.” 

McManus compares Wood’s prospective 2023 tax bill of $1,300 with his own far more humble dwelling — a 1,800-square-foot home on a small lot outside of Pineville city limits valued by the assessor at $115,000, for which he pays $836 in taxes. 

McManus also owns a vacant lot next to his home valued at $30,000, for which he pays $386 in taxes. A small rental house in downtown Pineville valued at $28,000 has a tax bill of $370, bringing his total property taxes to $1,593 — $300 more than Wood pays for his far more elaborate home with an in-ground pool and additional acreage he owns. 

Not all elected officials get a tax break

Generous valuations for the homes of the current and former Rapides sheriffs do not align with assessments on the homes of district judges and state legislators in the parish, who pay considerably more in property taxes. They are listed below, from highest to lowest value, along with their 2022 property tax total, according to Rapides Assessor Rick Ducote’s records.

  • Judge Greg Beard: 2-acre residential lot in Alexandria; value, $553,000; tax bill, $6,575.
  • Rep. Lance Harris: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $533,000; tax bill, $8,180. 
  • Judge Monique Rauls: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $449,000; tax bill, $5,145. 
  • Rep. Mike Johnson: One residential acre in Pineville; value, $376,000; tax bill: $4,243. 
  • Sen. Jay Luneau: One residential acre and 13 agricultural acres in Alexandria; value,  $365,460; tax bill, $3,806.
  • John Doggett, husband of Judge Mary Doggett: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $308,000; tax bill, $3,299. 
  • Judge Patricia Koch: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $287,000; tax bill, $3,018. 
  • Judge John Davidson: Five residential acres in Alexandria; value, $235,900; tax bill, $2,118.74. 
  • Judge Chris Hazel: One residential acre in Ball; value, $145,900; tax bill, $873. 
  • Judge David Michael Williams: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $53,000; tax bill $626.
  • Rep. Ed Larvadain III: One residential acre in Alexandria; value, $39,000; tax bill, $95.71.

Correction: John Doggett was incorrectly identified as a judge in a previous version of this story.

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Frances Madeson
Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson is a freelance reporter with a special interest in accountability journalism.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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