I missed Gill’s column in Wednesday’s Times Picayune (which isn’t all I’ve missed over the holidays) and, then, the spam filter caught the email tip sent by a reader – but no one should miss reading, Assessing a lifetime in Jeff politics:
Lawrence Chehardy’s retirement after 34 years as Jefferson Parish assessor brings to mind the Samuel Johnson crack: “That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.”
Chehardy’s wrong idea — that the homestead exemption should not only be retained but periodically raised — certainly resonated with the voters, however. It did not originate with him but came with the job, which he landed 34 years ago in a triumph of nepotism over democracy.
Daddy, the wildly popular long-term incumbent, drew no challengers when he came up for re-election until his 22-year-old law-student son turned up clutching his qualification papers with minutes to spare.
The mantle was passed seamlessly. Chehardy pere had appropriated the homestead exemption as his signature issue and parlayed it into a position atop the parish’s political establishment, where he and then-District Attorney John Mamoulides stuffed the courts with their protégés.
The elder Chehardy himself waltzed into a seat on the state court of appeal, while his heir took over as the exemption’s most vocal proponent, winning re-election hands down ever since.
The most bizarre aspect of the story is that, had the job become vacant a few years later, and the law required it go to the most qualified applicant, Chehardy would probably have been hired. He is an accountant as well as a lawyer, and nobody has ever doubted his office is professionally managed.
But sending out tax bills is a pretty humdrum business, and the assessor’s life must have been more fun in the heady period that followed the old switcheroo. Back then a Chehardy letter, like a Schwegmann bag, could sway an election.
But endorsements disappeared from the grocery bag long before the supermarket chain collapsed, and the notion that Jefferson Parish voters would do what their assessor told them now seems impossibly quaint. But they more closely resembled sheep when Chehardy pere ruled the roost and for the first several years of fils.
Long before the younger Chehardy announced his retirement, the mass election-eve mailings had faded away, although he would still pipe up whenever a tax increase or millage roll-forward was proposed.
Politics no longer offered much relief from assessor drudgery save for the annual attempt to amend the state constitution and raise the exemption. And that has proven frustrating, since it has remained at $75,000 since 1982. Chehardy will no longer make the trek to Baton Rouge to lobby for bills calling a referendum on the issue, and Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, who has dutifully filed them, says he won’t bother any more either.
Both suggest a fresh face will emerge to carry the torch, but it is hard to imagine a bigger waste of time. Constitutional amendments have to be approved by two thirds of the Legislature before they can be put on the ballot, and this idea is too perverse for that to happen, even in Baton Rouge. The issue has joined Chehardy in retirement.
The Louisiana exemption is still the highest in the country, and opposition to raising it will always come from business, which shoulders a higher percentage of the tax burden thanks to the homeowner exemption. Chehardy argues that homeowners are entitled to extra relief because business gets breaks of its own, and it is true that industrial tax exemptions have been too liberally handed out for the sake of new jobs that have often turned out to be pie in the sky. Still, one wrong idea does not make another one less so. Besides, most businesses pay full freight, so the exemption puts an obvious damper on the employment market.
Property taxes, moreover, are passed on to renters, who will often be much harder up than homeowners, who may pay little or nothing at all. The notion that the homestead exemption helps the little guy is thus a fable.
Local government, meanwhile, can hardly be expected to provide adequate schools and other services without a fair contribution from the middle class, that being where the money is.
Chehardy’s political clout may have waned, but it was still unwise to cross him, as Arthur Sterbcow, president of a local real estate firm, discovered last year when he provided information for a newspaper story showing that Chehardy assessed properties at 14 percent below market value.
Sterbcow was fired not because anyone questioned his data but because chairman Bob Merrick, as he explained in an e-mail to employees, was “in the process of mending fences.”
Well, kiss my assessor.
How about it SLABBED nation? A standing O for James Gill!