Wednesday, May 25, 2011

That a state property tax law is clearly bad is no excuse for abusing it.

We launched this series on the inequity of farmland property taxes paid in Lafayette Parish with a 3,000-word cover story (“Green Acres,” April 6) and followed up by highlighting two more landowners apparently dodging their fair share, thanks in part to a loophole in state law. And we want our tax assessor and any cheaters out there to know we’re not letting the issue go — not until abusers are officially notified they’ve lost their ag status and will have to pay up like the rest of us.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011

That a state property tax law is clearly bad is no excuse for abusing it.

We launched this series on the inequity of farmland property taxes paid in Lafayette Parish with a 3,000-word cover story (“Green Acres,” April 6) and followed up by highlighting two more landowners apparently dodging their fair share, thanks in part to a loophole in state law. And we want our tax assessor and any cheaters out there to know we’re not letting the issue go — not until abusers are officially notified they’ve lost their ag status and will have to pay up like the rest of us.

We’re identifying and dogging them because the 4,085 acres of agricultural use property in the city limits, much of which is nestled among the most commercially developed areas of Lafayette, is an issue that needs attention, persistent attention. Little has changed since “Green Acres” hit newsstands and detailed an exceedingly unfair practice in property taxes.

What this newspaper’s investigations have revealed is a poorly written state law that has no effect on the state’s coffers, but is having a detrimental impact on the local governments that rely on property taxes to fund public services. Landowners with undeveloped prime commercial property can circumvent paying thousands of dollars in property taxes every year with a bale of hay — or by simply signing a form at the tax assessor’s office saying there is some type of unidentified farming activity taking place on the land.

This law has allowed landowners with loads of acreage to pocket millions of dollars over the past few decades, landowners who in return command commercial prices for their property that more than double the going rate. The Saloom family sold the 13-acre tract at the corner of Kaliste Saloom Road and Camellia Boulevard for $7 million, yet paid less than $50 a year in taxes. And it’s not limited to commercial tracts. Last week we found what appears to be a residential dodger: Attorney Greg Logan pays $17 a year in property taxes for eight acres of well-manicured, “undeveloped” land off Johnston Street behind Park Place Apartments, while one of three buildings on the tract appears to have someone living there — it even has a satellite dish — and using city services (“Fair Share?”
May 18). His residential neighbor in Sun Valley Subdivision, with about an eighth of the property and one home on the land, will pay $1,147 in property taxes next year. And if Logan weren’t signed on to the agricultural loophole, he would be paying more than $5,000 a year, based on a calculation from the parish tax assessor.

From the “woodlands” on Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Logan’s eight acres and one-bedroom “shed” (his word for it) on Alleman Drive, the blatant abuse within Lafayette’s city limits is prevalent — and easy to spot via the online aerial maps provided on the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor’s website.
 
It’s bad enough that state statute allows for this type of tax-skirting to take place. But what’s worse is the way some landowners in Lafayette, like the two highlighted recently in this newspaper, don’t even use the loophole legally, don’t even bother baling hay or cutting the trees that sit atop the undeveloped, prime commercial lots.

Whatever side of the political spectrum you sit on, this property tax puzzle is a problem — and it needs to end.

We want to see the law rewritten in a way that still protects farmers from being taxed out of their livelihoods. And we’re not asking that undeveloped land be taxed at its highest possible commercial value. Again, had the thousands of ag-classified acres in Lafayette been assessed at even a small fraction of their fair market values, the parish would have received an additional $1.5 million in 2010 property taxes alone.

Tax assessors across the state aren’t likely to take on this political hot potato; what we need is a courageous legislator willing to right this wrong.

In the meantime, just because the system remains broken doesn’t make the abuse of a broken system acceptable in any way. Since our reports, Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux’s office notified the Arnould family at 3100 Ambassador Caffery of the loss of its ag status (“Forest for the Trees,” May 11); the office is scheduled to pay a visit to landowner Logan this week. Until the outdated law is changed, we can only hope that Comeaux seeks out the law’s most egregious abusers, while The Independent continues to shed some sunlight on Lafayette’s own “Green Acres.”

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